Habla Ingles, Por Favor

Ron Unz has battled bilingual ed out West. Now he takes on the nation's largest school district--New York.

Even in a high-tech culture that celebrates eccentricity, Ron Unz is–to be polite about it–an unusual character. A Silicon Valley software mogul who studied theoretical physics and ancient history at Harvard, Unz ran unsuccessfully for California’s GOP nomination for governor in 1994, when he was 31. Two years later he tried and failed to pass a campaign-finance referendum. Now 38, Unz is on a one-man crusade to end bilingual education. “It’s a well-intentioned but severely misguided policy,” he says, “that has resulted in a state-mandated segregation system for Hispanic and immigrant children.”

Unlike other techno-entrepreneurs who have funded education projects in recent years, Unz, a bachelor, has no children of his own and, it seems, little connection to the communities whose education policies he seeks to overturn. He is an unknown on Silicon Valley’s glitzy charity circuit, where the digerati flex their increasingly influential philanthropic and political muscle. Perhaps strangest of all, in a place where “going public” and burning millions was until recently regarded as a sign of power, Unz appears to be almost pathologically frugal. Working alone from his sparsely furnished home in Palo Alto, armed with little more than a Palm Pilot and a laptop, Unz relentlessly barrages educators, elected officials and media organizations with e-mails railing against the “monstrous stupidity” of bilingual education. He also flies coach around the country, recruiting volunteers–usually immigrant parents anxious for their children to learn English–to staff branches of his political-action committee English for the Children. He charges parents $1 for his services in getting a referendum on the ballot, strategically buying media time (in a business where ad budgets routinely run into the millions, he sticks to cheap radio spots and free appearances on cable television and local news programs) and making his case with op-ed pieces, such as the one he published last week in The New York Times, calling on the New York Board of Education to abandon, rather than reform, its bilingual program.

His methods have made Unz perhaps the most cost-effective amateur political consultant in American politics today. In 1998 he spent less than $1 million on a successful California ballot initiative–peanuts, compared with the $50 million or so spent on vanity campaigns for school vouchers–replacing traditional bilingual education, in which students are taught primarily in their native language, with English “immersion” classes. This November Unz plans to launch a similar assault in New York City, where one in eight children is educated primarily in a language other than English.

Last week the New York City Board of Education voted to give parents a choice between bilingual programs and English immersion, and to limit the time a child can spend in a bilingual classroom to three years. “I believe that bilingual education has worked and can work, ” New York schools chancellor Harold Levy told NEWSWEEK. “It’s a lousy idea to end it.” But Unz says the board’s reforms are “meaningless” and that he’ll go ahead with his campaign to end the city’s bilingual program altogether.

While his critics paint him as xenophobic, even racist, Unz has tried to position himself as a champion of immigrant families anxious for their children to learn English and to get ahead. He says he was inspired by the hardworking immigrants he saw while living in New York in the early 1990s. As he rode home on the subway from Manhattan to Queens late each night, he watched as they pored over their English books. A 2000 study by New York’s Task Force on Bilingual Education found that after three years, fewer than half of the students in the program had acquired enough English skills to allow them to join regular classes. For those who enter after sixth grade, the number dropped to 7 percent. After California replaced bilingual education with English immersion, reading test scores soared. To “liberate” non-English-speaking children from bilingual classrooms, Unz says, is a civil-rights challenge “almost on par” with Brown v. Board of Education.

That may be a stretch. But it’s clear that Unz’s obsession has deep personal roots. He was raised in Los Angeles by his mother and his Ukrainian-immigrant grandmother. Yiddish was spoken at home, but Unz says, “it never occurred to anyone that I would be educated in a language other than English.” If he gets his way, the same will be true for millions of immigrant children.

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