Rapid-immersion English needs strong local support

Without a groundswell of public support for a radical downsizing of bilingual education in Massachusetts, California businessman-activist Ron Unz says he would be reluctant to bankroll an initiative campaign here.

Mr. Unz, the financial and strategic force behind the successful English for the Children” campaign in California, has been in contact with state Sen. Guy W. Glodis, D-Worcester, about starting a similar campaign in the Bay State.

Mr. Glodis wrote legislation to replace gradual bilingual instruction with a one-year rapid English immersion program. He has threatened to lead an initiative movement if the Legislature does not pass his bill.

There’s still time to go ahead with something for the 2002 ballot, but it depends on having prominent local people involved, and so far that hasn’t happened,” Mr. Unz, who has visited the state three or four times in the last few years, said in a telephone interview from California. I’d be reluctant to get involved unless there was a critical mass of people.”

Mr. Unz, 39, multimillionaire founder of a Palo Alto financial services software company, has been involved with campaigns to overhaul bilingual education in Arizona, Colorado and New York City.

He maintains that conventional approaches of teaching English to immigrant children hold back their progress and make it harder for them to enter the mainstream work world. Critics say Mr. Unz’s ideas feed anti-immigrant sentiment and that immersion is too difficult for students who need more time and support to learn English.

In California, Mr. Unz spent $700,000 of his own money to bring the issue before voters. The measure, which replaced bilingual education with immersion, passed with 61 percent of the vote on June 2, 1998.

Mr. Unz said he would be willing to spend about $200,000 in Massachusetts, but only if respected community people, preferably from immigrant backgrounds, emerge to publicly support the cause.

Up to now, only a handful of legislators, including Mr. Glodis and Rep. Mary S. Rogeness, R-Longmeadow, have backed major change in the state’s bilingual system.

Bilingual education proponents have mobilized to save the system, with dozens of educators and activists testifying last week at a Statehouse hearing on bilingual bills.

Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford, a leading supporter of bilingual instruction, has filed legislation that would permit a variety of approaches, including courses that allow students to be taught in two languages for many years.

Among the issues over which Mr. Glodis and bilingual supporters are at odds is whether bilingual teachers should be fluent in English. Mr. Glodis wants them not only to speak English but to teach in English at least 90 percent of the time.

Mr. Glodis also has touted money-saving aspects of changing the bilingual system, but Mr. Unz said financial considerations are minor. The more important issue, he said, is how to teach English most quickly and effectively.

It’s counterproductive to frame the opposition to bilingual education as a matter of saving a few dollars,” Mr. Unz said. The real point is, it doesn’t work.”

Mr. Unz said he remains interested in working with a potential initiative campaign in Massachusetts, especially in light of polling he did several years ago that indicated overwhelming support” for it here.

But he emphasized that he does not want to be cast in the role of a carpetbagger.

Although he attended Harvard University, graduating in 1983, Mr. Unz has not resided in Massachusetts in nearly 20 years.

An effort like this is very ill-advised unless it has a strong base of local support,” he said. And I really would hope I wouldn’t have to be the primary funder because I don’t even live there.”

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