Mar. 28, 2001 – The man who claims credit for “dismantling bilingual education” in California and Arizona says Colorado could be next.
Ron Unz, a California software entrepreneur turned education activist, said Tuesday that “the likelihood is very high” that he will seek to place an initiative on the 2002 Colorado ballot that would make English the only language of instruction for most children who start school speaking other languages.
The initiative – which bilingual teachers say they’ll fight – would be very similar to one that failed to get on the 2000 ballot due to a technical challenge. It was modeled on Unz’s 1998 California initiative and his Arizona one in 2000.
Colorado’s initiative last year, led by conservative think-tank director Linda Chavez and Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., deserved to pass but suffered from “the worst possible campaign,” Unz said.
Though Unz calls himself a conservative Republican, he said the issue won in California and Arizona by running nonpartisan campaigns. Involving Tancredo was “just completely insane” because many voters view him as anti-immigrant, Unz said.
“The one thing you want to do is keep away people who have a lot of very negative baggage on this issue,” Unz said.
Instead, Unz said he probably will team with former Denver school board member Rita Montero, who helped craft Denver Public Schools’ program for English learners but has grown increasingly critical of it.
Unz calls his movement English for the Children. He said he grew interested in, and ultimately infuriated by, bilingual-education programs because his Yiddishspeaking mother, like every other immigrant his family knew, learned English simply by going to school with Englishspeaking children.
Bilingual education, as the term is used in the United States, means teaching children math, social studies and other academic subjects in their native language while they learn English gradually.
That approach may make sense for teenagers with no exposure to English, but not for young children, Unz said. Instead, he favors – and California and Arizona now require – that most non-English-speaking children spend a year in an English im mersion class, then move into mainstream classes.
The initiative would not make bilingual education illegal, just harder to obtain, Unz said. In many cases, parents could apply for waivers to keep their kids in bilingual classes.
Unz visited The Denver Post Tuesday armed with press clippings supporting his contention that California districts that moved aggressively to end bilingual education have higher state test scores than those that delayed implementing the new law.
The California Department of Education isn’t so sure.
“We have a three-year study, but we don’t have any specific conclusions as yet,” said Leslie Fausset, chief deputy superintendent.
Silvana Carlos, a former Greeley school psychologist and president of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, said many children learn better in programs like the ones Unz opposes. She said her organization will fight the initiative.
“Our mission is to protect the language rights of all kids,” Carlos said.
Parents and local school officials need to be able to decide what approach works best for their community, Carlos said.
Both sides agree that the key to success in this country is becoming literate in English, Carlos said; the dispute is over tactics.
Unz said he’s targeting Colorado largely because reports of dissatisfaction with Denver’s English Language Acquisition program convinced him he can win here. New York and Massachusetts are also on his list.
“Denver Public Schools has an excellent program to transition students who don’t speak English,” said school board President Elaine Gantz Berman.
A key feature of Denver’s program is that it aims to mainstream kids in three years, “which is considerably shorter than what the traditional bilingual program had done historically,” Berman said.
Many other districts in Colorado and across the country also aim for a threeyear transition. Unz said the problem with that figure is that “somebody just made it up.” He said it’s the result of a crude compromise between the most vociferous Englishonly advocates – who think it takes six months to become fluent – and pro-bilingual education researchers, who think it takes five to seven years.
Reigning in bilingual education won’t limit anyone’s freedoms, Unz said.
He noted that a previous political fight that was cast in terms of civil liberties hasn’t really affected anyone. “English has been the official language in Colorado now for 12 years. It doesn’t mean anything,” Unz said.