Foes cite ineffective schools, ethnic friction

The quest by Rita Montero and Ron Unz to get immigrants speaking English as fast and as young as possible is about much more than classroom technique.

To Montero, bilingual education is a symptom of everything wrong with public schools.

To Unz, it’s an example of out-of-control multiculturalism that he fears will lead to an “ethnic conflict” in the United States.

Non-Hispanic whites became a minority in California in the 1980s, and the same will happen to the whole country soon, Unz says. “The consequences really could be very significant,” he says.

The bloody experiences of other multicultural countries such as Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka suggest that a race war is a possibility here, albeit a remote one, he says. More likely, he says, the country will degenerate socially if whites start forming the same kinds of minority organizations that blacks and Hispanics have started.

“For example, you have the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. What if you had the White Legal Defense and Educational Fund? It seems to me that would be quite controversial.”

The way to keep the country united, he says, is a renewed commitment to “ethnic assimilation,” including the primacy of the English language.

Former Denver school board member Montero turned against bilingual education – after once supporting it – for other reasons: She thinks teachers and administrators are exploiting the education bureaucracy to keep themselves employed while ignoring kids’ needs.

Powerful team

Montero and Unz hooked up after appearing together on the PBS “Newshour” in 1997. They make a formidable debate team, with Unz trying to focus attention on America’s political destiny and Montero hammering Denver Public Schools for what she sees as ineptitude and selfishness.

Unz traces his distaste for bilingual education to the fact that his Yiddish-speaking forebears learned English and became successful Americans without schools trying to accommodate them with native-language classes.

Fans of bilingual education say that’s a too-narrow view of what schools – and America – should be about. Students can learn to speak English and be American while still honoring their family traditions, they say.

Unz knows only a few words of Yiddish. Asked whether he feels any sense of loss over this, he says, “Really none at all.”

Tool of unity

Relatively few Americans are of English descent, he points out, but most embrace the English language as a tool of national unity and don’t expect public schools to make a fuss over their ancestral cultures.

“How many Italians are there in America who really speak very good Italian? Probably not very many,” Unz says. “I don’t think most Americans view it as such a big deal.”

Jose Perea thinks it’s a huge deal. The executive director of English Language Acquisition at DPS, Perea compares Unz’s desire to ban the use of native languages in American classrooms to the Soviet Union’s imposing the Russian language on its satellite republics.

Unz and Perea have something surprising in common: Both are descended from Jews who fled persecution in Europe.

Their thoughts on assimilation are separated by half a millennium, however. Perea’s predecessors left Spain for what became New Mexico during the Inquisition more than 500 years ago. There they acquired the cultural identity that Perea, like millions of Mexican-Americans, still holds dear. It goes by various names – Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, Mexicano, mestizo – but its foundations are the Spanish language and an Indianized Catholicism.

Success and acceptance in Anglo culture are possible and desirable – “Give me a break, I’m assimilated,” Perea says – but never at the cost of these roots.

And there is nothing wrong, he says, with schools working with that legacy rather than against it.

Multilingualism is “just a natural thing, and you can’t be afraid of it,” he says. “Fear drives people, and that’s what I believe is the big issue with bilingual ed: It’s fear that people are talking (another) language and talking about you.”

Unz insists his views don’t make him a racist or an enemy of immigrants. He points to his opposition, while a candidate for governor of California in 1994, of a ballot proposal to withhold state services from undocumented immigrants. (He lost the Republican nomination; the proposal passed.)

Like many anti-bilingual activists, Montero says it’s not really bilingual education she’s against.

Rather, she thinks it’s time to recognize that a good bilingual education is too difficult to pull off because qualified teachers are hard to find.

Solution? Stop trying.

“The teacher is the most important resource, and I don’t believe that we’re ever going to be in a place where we have enough qualified teachers,” Montero says. “There aren’t enough to go around. I don’t believe the program can ever be as effective as it should be, just because of the teacher shortage.”

Once an advocate

Montero’s family history also helped form her views. She grew up in a household and in a school where speaking Spanish was grounds for punishment. As a Chicana firebrand in Fort Lupton in the 1970s and early ’80s, she slammed the schools as bastions of discrimination for not offering native-language instruction to farmworkers’ children.

After she and her husband, a mechanic, had a son, they put him in a bilingual program in Denver, even though his first language was English and the program was designed for children whose first language was Spanish.

They changed their minds and asked to have him put in a regular class. DPS refused, Montero says, because it needed enough students to justify the teacher’s salary. It was then that she began to view bilingual education as a mafia of selfish teachers and administrators interested only in preserving their jobs.

She made her personal anger political, by running for and winning a Denver school board seat. After one term, she lost it to the Rev. Lucia Guzman, who favors bilingual education.

Her relentless criticism of DPS remains attractive to many voters, however. She came in second for an at-large school board seat last November even though she withdrew from the three-way race weeks before election day.

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