In plain English, Ron Unz opposes bilingual teaching

Calling education in 2 tongues ineffective, wealthy critic devoted to pursing its demise

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — People send Ron Unz hate mail. They catcall and name call when he speaks. But here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Askwith Lecture Hall, they mostly laugh.

They chortle at the California millionaire’s assertion that bilingual education has destroyed millions of lives by failing to teach children the English language skills they need to survive. They snicker at his idea that a single year of English language immersion for the same students could double millions of Massachusetts test scores.

They guffaw at what Unz offers as proof — an analysis of California test scores that appeared not in an educational journal but in the San Jose Mercury News, a daily newspaper.

To a less stalwart soul, it might be daunting to be greeted with such scorn at this hallowed center of academia.

Not for Unz, a childless Anglo bachelor who has changed thousands of Hispanic children’s lives in California and Arizona by backing the same anti-bilingual education ballot initiatives he’s now pushing in Colorado and Massachusetts.

Throughout the hourlong debate with Harvard bilingual theorist Catherine Snow, a smile rarely leaves Unz’s face. He, too, is amused. Amused because he is just about certain how it will all turn out.

First, angry educators will accost him at debates. Then, newspapers will run editorials cautioning against his plan to mainstream non-English speakers after a single year of intensive English. Charges of immigrant-bashing will fly. Accusations of racism. Howls about the end of local control. Democrats, Republicans, teachers unions — all will back away from his initiative.

But Unz knows that Election Day will arrive.

And he is certain of what it will bring: The silent majority who stayed home watching Survivor while bilingual activists fought for the survival of their philosophy will approve Unz’s anti-bilingual ballot initiative by a landslide.

That’s how it happened in California in 1998. That’s how it happened in Arizona in 2000. That’s exactly how Unz expects it to happen in 2002 when anti-bilingual initiatives likely will appear on ballots in Colorado and Massachusetts.

Frankly, Unz is getting a little tired of it all. He thought he would have all the evidence he needed when Stanford 9 test scores rose in California after bilingual education ended. But bilingual educators rebut that “proof,” saying test scores rose for all students after teachers started teaching to the test.

So, Unz trudges on.

He pines for a vacation. He yearns to furnish his 8-year-old Silicon Valley home. He longs to replace the 8-year-old Nissan Sentra he drives.

“If the bilinguals” — as he dismissively refers to bilingual educators — “had surrendered a few years ago, I’d have a new car by now,” he says.

“I never thought I’d spend the rest of my life on this crazy thing. It would be awfully nice if Congress would declare a victory so I could go home.”

Why not go home? Certainly his opponents would shed no tears in Colorado, where his initiative has the potential to affect the state’s 52,659 English language learners — 40 percent of whom are enrolled in bilingual education programs.

“Here is this self-made California millionaire trying to write himself a chapter in Colorado’s educational history without any sense of the diversity of the population and their needs,” said state Board of Education member Gully Stanford, who chairs Colorado’s anti-Unz initiative campaign. “I would say that the word is impertinent.”

Impertinent or not, Unz is unlikely to go home anytime soon.

“He’s like a pit bull when it comes to an issue,” said political law attorney Tony Miller, who chaired Unz’s unsuccessful campaign to reform California’s campaign finance laws. “He’s driven by a desire to make a difference.”

Unz believes, and Miller agrees, that the show would likely not go on without him. And he refuses to rest until the show goes nationwide — a motivation that has led him to pour considerably more energy of late into Massachusetts than Colorado.

“I really hope if something like this were successful in Massachusetts, it would help shift the entire country,” he explained.

That’s not to say Unz is ignoring Colorado’s campaign. Though new enough to the state to refer to the alternative Denver news weekly Westword as “Westwing,” he has put in appearances at every major initiative milestone.

Sensitive to accusations he is a carpetbagger, Unz is careful to stress that local representatives — always Hispanics — run the show in each state. He believes a Colorado anti-bilingual initiative — struck down last year by the courts for being unclear — would have failed had it been put to the test because the “wrong sort of people” were involved, people likely to turn what Unz sees as a nonpartisan education debate into an ugly ethnic scrap.

Among the 2000 initiative backers is U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, an outspoken advocate for cutting immigration.

Not among them: Ron Unz.

On a sunny, Indian summer afternoon in Boston, Unz is the guest of honor at a liberal think tank’s monthly luncheon.

The former theoretical physicist is dressed today in geek chic — a sport coat and round-toed professor shoes. At 5-feet-8 and 145 pounds, he still, at 40, looks a little like a kid who has borrowed an older brother’s tie for a bar mitzvah.

He has the slightly oversized head of the political caricatures he’s been known to inspire, the perpetually tanned skin of a native Californian and the antsy, eager air of the gifted-and-talented child he once was.

Indignation tends to make his voice rise to a pre-adolescent squeak.

In this plush office papered with artwork, the man who is rarely silent barely speaks. At least until his presentation begins. The first word about bilingual education seems to bring him to life.

“One question that could come up is, ‘how in the world did I get into this?’ ” he begins.

Then, like a tape recorder, he reels off the story that has been repeated at forums and in newspapers dozens if not hundreds of times in the past decade. The story that can only begin to explain how a childless Anglo millionaire became wrapped up in an issue that largely affects low-income, Hispanic children.

Ronald Keeva Unz is a man of many contradictions.

He is a Republican who feels more at home with liberals. A conservative who refuses to support the right-wing bailiwicks of vouchers, immigration limits and school choice. A millionaire who crisscrosses the country on the cut-rate airline Southwest and allows his elegant Spanish-style home to grow a moustache of dirt along its base.

Born in Los Angeles in 1961, he is the son of a couple who never wed.

His father, now a University of Kansas professor of applied physics and electrical engineering, walked out on his son, Unz says.

His mother, a schoolteacher, went on welfare and moved back in with her parents after her health started to deteriorate soon after her son’s birth.

Unz says he has “a little bit of an immigrant background” and that this helped inspire his anti-bilingual quest. His mother, in fact, was the daughter of Russian immigrants. But she was born in the U.S. She spoke only Yiddish during her early years, but, according to her younger sister, had learned English by the time she started school.

Now a harsh critic of many aspects of the educational establishment, Unz received little but laurels during his own school years.

“Ron,” said his 63-year-old aunt, Rivko Knox, “is the only genius I’ve ever met.”

Identified in the second grade as having a 214 IQ , Unz went on to win the poor kid’s academic lottery prize — admission to Harvard University and all the prestige and scholarship possibilities that go with it. Among his regrets while there — he graduated magna, not summa, cum laude. Admission into Stanford University’s physics doctoral program followed.

While there, Unz tried to start an honors high school in Los Angeles. His failure, he told the New Republic, convinced him that “the next time I try something like that I’m going to at least have enough money that people will take me seriously, or I’ll have flexibility so I can spend time on it.”

In the summer of 1987, Unz won a summer job at the prestigious First Boston investment banking and securities firm after adding his dazzling IQ to a resume glaring in its lack of business experience.

A single summer stretched into years when Unz abandoned his doctoral quest to start his own company based on a type of software he first wrote at First Boston. From this, grew Wall Street Analytics, the company that has made him rich.

There is an American stereotype of the millionaire who gets rich, then gets into politics.

Unz claims he got rich so he could afford to get into politics.

Physics might have been his talent, but politics was his passion.

As soon as his resources allowed, the man who had never so much as been elected president of his elementary school class ran for governor of California.

He walked away from the Republican primary with 34 percent of the vote and a newly raised profile.

He went on to fight against California’s divisive Proposition 187 — which prohibited illegal immigrants from receiving public services — and to support Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action.

Then, in 1996, Unz read a Los Angeles Times article about Hispanic parents protesting a school they said refused to teach their children English.

Unz says he had long considered bilingual education ineffective.

Inspired to look more closely at the issue, he learned that many educators, including Harvard opponent Snow, believe the older a child is, the faster he or she learns a second language.

This struck Unz as patently absurd.

And that, believes his aunt, is one of the driving forces behind Unz’s quest to do away with bilingual education.

“Ron looks at things from a logical perspective,” said Knox, a state employee in Phoenix. “He couldn’t see the point of why it couldn’t be changed and decided to see if he could.”

Other, less charitable explanations of Unz’s motives range from racism — which he patently denies — to an egotistical love of the spotlight.

Kenji Hakuta, a respected Stanford University education professor, believes California’s anti-bilingual education initiative has had little, if any, impact. Instead, he says, the biggest barrier to achievement for English language learners is poverty.

Several months ago, he took Unz to lunch at the Stanford Faculty Club. He came away with a bad taste in his mouth.

“I’m afraid he had lunch with me so he could distort it,” said Hakuta, referring to Unz’s subsequent claims that the professor had tossed some test score data onto his Web site without bothering to thoroughly review it.

“He doesn’t listen,” Hakuta said. “He talks. He is really offensive in the way he characterizes people in the field of education. He tries to wear the aura of his background in physics. You might want to ask him why he never finished his degree. He’s a smart guy, but he certainly doesn’t know statistics.”

Hakuta said he suspects Unz’s motives for the anti-bilingual education initiatives “are his larger political ideas and possibly political ambitions.”

Unz denies this and pointedly replies:

“Kenji’s a nice man, but he’s a very, very silly man on those things. He’s somebody that’s not that fervently involved in the debate. From what Kenji was telling me, he cares more about rock climbing or early retirement.”

Unz isn’t just in his office. He is his office.

Airports. Hotel lobbies. Even the guano-pocked steps of public buildings. All have doubled as his cubicle.

Today he has settled at one of the ubiquitous outdoor restaurant tables in his hometown, Palo Alto, Calif., a university hamlet transformed by the early ’90s computer boom into a millionaire’s mecca.

This is a place he is often in, but not truly of; he prefers East Coast literati to Silicon Valley’s digerati. Here, the man who steered California education into a dramatic U-turn can sit for hours unnoticed while the latest tech whiz draws Elvis-like stares.

Unz says he doesn’t care. For one thing, it makes it easier to work.

No. 1 today on his to-do list is a call to a Chinese-American newspaper in Boston. No. 2 is an attempt to pitch the anti-bilingual story to a national TV news magazine.

Unz is often accused of buying his elections. In California’s anti-bilingual education campaign — his biggest victory yet — he spent $700,000 of his own money on a campaign that cost about $1 million. His opponents spent more than $4 million.

But there is one commodity the frugal millionaire is willing to spend almost indiscriminately. That is time.

Much of that time is devoted to the media.

“Media,” explains Unz, who reads six newspapers a day and is in constant touch with his clipping services, “is very powerful. It’s more powerful than anything else in America. One article in a newspaper has as much impact as a full-page ad. Every article that appears in the Rocky Mountain News is worth something like $10,000.

“I really hate fund raising. I prefer talking to journalists.”

When he’s not talking to journalists, Unz spends much of his time . . . well . . . on exactly the same thing he did the day before. He spends it on repetitive, menial tasks he believes he can do fastest and most efficiently himself.

He photocopies his own handouts. He compiles the press kits he often totes around in plastic Walgreens sacks. He repeats the same arguments over again to think tanks, politicians, educators and anyone else who asks.

Usually, it is not much of a bother.

For Unz is, in general, fond of repetition. He has listened to the same Neil Diamond tape during every workout and walk for the past 15 years. Day after day, he does little else but work.

“He does not sleep,” said Miller, the political law attorney. “I know people who have disconnected or turned off their fax machines at night because they didn’t want to be awakened by Ron Unz’s faxes.”

There are two aspects of the bilingual education debate Unz does not consider worth his time. They are reading educational research studies and actually visiting children in their schools.

The studies, he dismisses as “garbage,” their authors as “really not that sharp.” The school visits, he says, are just plain irrelevant.

“There are thousands and thousands of schools in the U.S.,” he said. “They’re all a little different. You can find a school somewhere where any program is successful. You have to look at the data.”

It is such bluntness that makes those who have worked politically with Unz wonder whether he truly has what it takes to transform his success with voter initiatives into winning the elective offices he has conceded he may again seek.

“Maybe he ultimately lacks the people skills to be governor or senator,” Miller said. “He has a long way to go before that happens in terms of connecting with the voters at large.”

In agreement is Robert Stern, a Los Angeles think-tank president who drafted the millionaire’s campaign finance reform initiative.

“As a politician, he’s a little bit too outspoken. He regards himself as being smarter than anybody else, and he probably is. The problem is, people don’t like it when people believe they are smarter and are, indeed, smarter.”

If he is smarter than everyone else, he doesn’t always act like it, says Harvard debate opponent Snow.

“He somehow gives the impression of being intelligent,” she said. “However, he’s ignoring the rules of intelligent discourse. He’s ignoring data. So, in some sense, he’s going to always have the advantage over academics. As an academic, you have intellectual constraints.”

The manner in which Unz reflected upon his Harvard debate would almost certainly violate such constraints.

Writing in the conservative publication National Review, he makes no attempt to cloak his words with political correctness.

In a turn of phrase he later concedes was probably in poor taste, he described his opponents as “educational terrorists.”

And himself?

He is, he wrote, “their own personal bin Laden.”

Contact Holly Yettick at (303) 892-5082 or [email protected]

November 12, 2001

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