Billionaire [sic] businessman Ron Unz took his campaign to virtually end bilingual education in California into hostile territory Saturday when he appeared at a community forum in the Pico-Union district on Latino issues.
Unz was officially scheduled to debate a staff attorney from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund on the merits of an initiative the entrepreneur is seeking to put on the June ballot to replace bilingual education with a one-year English immersion program for young students. But at times it seemed he was debating the entire audience.”What are you basing this on? How many bilingual programs have you visited?” shouted an incensed Aida Diaz, a Santa Monica bilingual education teacher. “Why does a billionaire have an interest in this? . . . You could be spending your money on something else!”
Through it all, Unz appeared unruffled. Smiling, he laid out his views in a soft, slow voice: That 25 years of bilingual education have failed the state’s children and that Latinos have borne the brunt of the consequences.
“The only way you can get a good job and succeed is if you speak English,” he said. “And schools are not doing a good enough job” teaching English.
Unz is a software entrepreneur who staged a spirited bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1994 but was a strong opponent of the anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187 that year. He said his initiative was inspired by stories about Latino parents having to picket a local school to get their children out of bilingual classes. He needs 433,269 verified signatures by Dec. 1 to win the measure a spot on the ballot, and he said last week that he had 600,000 signatures.
“The current [bilingual education] system we have is a failure,” Unz said. “The only hope of changing the system is our initiative.”
He received polite applause from perhaps two in the crowd of about 40. Cheers were reserved for MALDEF’s Silvia Argueta, who called the measure “political opportunism [on] the backs of our children.”
She said that if non-English-speaking pupils spent their first school year only studying English, they would lag in other subjects. “English is not the sole answer. It is an important answer,” she said.
Then the audience jumped in. Though Unz repeatedly cited a Times poll showing overwhelming support for his initiative among Latino parents, the Latino activists who made up much of the crowd were strongly skeptical. .
One teacher asked Unz what academic research he had consulted. The businessman said he relied on largely anecdotal evidence, comments from Latino parents in newspapers and his immigrant mother’s ability to learn English in her first year of school in Boyle Heights despite speaking none of the language at home.
Other teachers took issue with Unz’s citation of a statistic that only 5% of all students in the state who enter school not speaking English learn the language annually. They said that figure ignores research showing that it takes several years to master English. Replied Unz: “Schools are paid more money so long as children don’t learn English and are punished with less money if the kids learn English. Maybe then you can understand why it takes seven years” to master the language.
Argueta said any problems with bilingual education should be fixed through the Legislature. “This initiative is not the answer to what ails our educational system,” she said.