Ron Unz — whiz kid, software magnate, would-be governor — is an unlikely leader in the latest political tug-of-war over what’s taught in California classrooms.
But two years ago, he spotted a newspaper story about a group of Latino parents boycotting their children’s Los Angeles school because the alty software for financial institutions. The business does $30 million a year in sales.
“I never dreamed I’d be doing this,” he says by phone from his Palo Alto home, a mansion reportedly nearly bare of furniture but for a corner room in which he conducts his business. That business, for now, is education politics.
“I’m unofficially on leave from my company.”
Although he sees himself as an academic, Unz says he’s “always had an interest in public policy issues, particularly race, ethnicity and social issues.”
He also has displayed a keen interest in elective politics. In 1994, arguing that Pete Wilson had strayed away from conservative ideals, he ran against the governor in the Republican primary. He spent $2 million of his own money, won 34 percent of the vote and made a statewide name for himself just a year after moving back to California from New York.
He doesn’t rule out a future bid for office. For now, though, he presses on with the fervor of a true believer with his idea to improve the lot of immigrant children.
“I can’t see how anyone can describe this campaign as anti-immigrant or anti-Latino,” Unz says. “All of the immigrants I know want their children to learn English.
“I am pro-immigrant,” he says — despite the fact he opposed Proposition 187, which sought to cut off many government services to illegal immigrants.
“Immigration historically has been good for America. But the benefits of immigration have come because of our traditional emphasis on assimilation. Children need to learn English.”
His opponents don’t argue with the last statement. The debate, instead, revolves around how English is taught. And while Unz has on his side high-profile educators such as Jaime Escalante, the “Stand and Deliver” math teacher who transformed barrio students into physics whizzes, and Gloria Matta Tuchman, the English-immersion teacher who is running for state schools superintendent, most of the rest of the state’s educational community has lined up against him.
No matter. He dismisses arguments against his plan as blithely as he dismisses suggestions that he see for himself what happens in a bilingual classroom.
“I’ve talked with parents; I’ve seen it on TV,” he says. “And that’s enough for me to know that the current system clearly doesn’t work. The only people who argue with that are members of the bilingual education industry, and they’ve got a vested interest in seeing this failure continue.”
Unz will be in Santa Rosa on Tuesday taking part in a debate at an educators’ conference put on by the Sonoma County Office of Education. The event is filled, organizers said.