Bilingual ed law gets a new foe

California man joins Mass. ballot crusade

The Silicon Valley millionaire whose money helped demolish bilingual education in California and Arizona is bringing his crusade to Massachusetts.

Ron Unz will be on the State House steps this morning to join the push for a ballot initiative that would virtually eliminate bilingual education in the Commonwealth, which enacted the nation’s first bilingual education law in 1971. Unz bankrolled overwhelming ballot victories in California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000, and he recently initiated an effort in Colorado.

He says the Massachusetts measure, which would appear on the November 2002 ballot, is long overdue.

”Nothing has changed here in 30 years,” said Unz, who will have to collect 57,100 signatures to place his initiative on the ballot. ”An effort that dismantled the bilingual program here, a large East Coast state which is a major media and intellectual center for the whole United States, could have huge national significance.”

Opponents say the one-year English ”immersion” approach Unz advocates will be a disaster for many students, particularly older ones who had limited schooling in their native lands.

State Representative Jarrett Barrios says the Commonwealth should change its 30-year-old bilingual education law. But he doesn’t believe that bilingual education, in all its forms, should be ended.

”The top priority of any bilingual education program is to teach children English,” said the Cambridge Democrat, who is organizing a probilingual education event to follow Unz’s. ”But one-size-fits-all, either in current law or what Unz is proposing, will never meet the needs of all children.”

Unz isn’t the first person to announce his intention to put an antibilingual education measure on the November 2002 ballot: On Sunday, state Senator Guy Glodis said he would file the necessary paperwork by tomorrow’s deadline.

But Unz said Sunday that he wouldn’t pay for any campaign led by a politician, and that he needed Hispanics, immigrants, and educators to lead the charge.

He now has them: Chelsea High School principal Lincoln Tamayo, who was born in Cuba and chairs the state Education Department’s bilingual advisory board, will lead the campaign. Two authors of books critical of bilingual education, Italian immigrant Rosalie Pedalino Porter and Boston University professor Christine Rossell, will play leading roles.

Under current law, Massachusetts school districts that have 20 or more children who have a limited grasp of English and speak the same language must provide a transitional bilingual program for up to three years. Students learn English, but they also learn math, science, and other subjects in their native tongue until their English improves. About 49,000 Massachusetts students are classified ”limited English proficient.”

Supporters of bilingual education say it eases children into English while allowing them to keep their native languages. But Unz and other critics contend that such programs hurt students by coddling them, leaving them far behind their English-speaking classmates. Many, they point out, spend more than three years in bilingual classes.

”These students are being segregated from mainstream English opportunities,” said Glodis, a Worcester Democrat. ”They have the lowest MCAS scores, the highest dropout rates, and the lowest college admission rate. Something has to be done.”

For several years, Glodis’s bills to eliminate bilingual education have gone nowhere. Even before today’s announcement, however, the specter of an Unz-funded campaign had prompted serious debate on the state’s law.

But Unz said those discussions did not go far enough.

Under his proposal, all non-native English speakers would be placed in one-year ”sheltered immersion” classes where they’d be with other immigrants but instruction would be in English. Waivers would be granted for some older children and some special-needs students.

Unz said his polling in Massachusetts indicates that support here is even stronger than it was in California, where his initiative passed with 61 percent of the vote. In Arizona, 63 percent of voters favored his proposal. He spent about $700,000 in California and $250,000 in Arizona, he said.

Fewer than 40 percent of California’s Hispanics voted for Unz’s proposal. He says rising test scores there have bolstered Hispanic support for his measure in the three years since the vote.

Barrios said some research suggests that bilingual education, not English immersion, boosts scores. ”There’s no way you can construe what Ron Unz is doing as anything less than anti-immigrant and antichildren,” he said.

Scott S. Greenberger can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

Comments are closed.