Rumpled but ready

Calif. businessman targets Mass. bilingual education

Ron Unz is a Silicon Valley millionaire with victories against bilingual education in two states to his credit, but he certainly didn’t look the part yesterday as he darted around the fringes of his own State House event, snapping photographs with a disposable camera.

He flew into town by himself – riding coach, using frequent flyer miles – ready to demolish the Commonwealth’s 30-year-old bilingual education system. He sported a baggy brown blazer, slightly rumpled khakis, and a less-than-perfect shave. At 5-foot-8, 140 pounds, Unz struggled under the weight of a black gym bag filled with information packets.

The Harvard graduate doesn’t have a polished press operation, but bilingual education supporters underestimate him at their peril: He has already bankrolled overwhelming victories in California and Arizona. And with images of pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps immigrants of the early 1900s firmly implanted in his brain, he has the tireless zeal of a true believer.

”I’m really surprised that I still have to devote a lot of time to this,” he said shortly before boarding a plane back to California. ”When something doesn’t make any sense, and the newspaper articles indicate it isn’t working, you expect it to go away.”

Advocates of bilingual education say that Unz doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

”I think he’s a well-meaning guy who knows very little about education and how it works,” said John Perez of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, a teachers’ union that opposed Unz’s California campaign. ”He’s not a teacher. He listens only to people who agree with him philosophically. And he has no interest in actually coming into the schools and finding out how kids learn and what can be done to improve education in the state.”

In Massachusetts, Unz’s initiative would force schools to put students who don’t speak English into regular classrooms after a transitional year of English immersion. He and his supporters must collect 57,100 signatures to put the measure on the November 2002 ballot.

Unz’s financial services software company – Wall Street Analytics, based in Palo Alto, Calif. – has made him rich. But the millionaire still lives like a graduate student. A bachelor, Unz, 39, sleeps on a mattress on the floor. He eats breakfast every morning at a neighborhood diner.

Since 1997, when he began his California campaign, he has left the day-to-day operation of his company to others and devoted most of his time to demolishing programs that he believes deny immigrant children a piece of the American Dream.

Like many other American Jews, Unz looks back with some nostalgia at the turn-of-the-century immigrant community on the Lower East Side of New York. Most of the Eastern European Jews who lived there arrived in the United States poor, and many spoke only Yiddish. But their children, funneled immediately into English-only classrooms when no one had heard of bilingual education, went on to college and success in a land of opportunity.

Unz views himself as a champion of immigration, but not everyone agrees. Earlier this week, state Representative Jarrett Barrios, a Cambridge Democrat, called Unz ”anti-immigrant and anti-children.”

Unz’s response: When it comes to bilingual education, most Hispanic elected officials are out of step with what most Hispanics believe. ”What you have is a very small group of active, determined, even fanatical people, and everyone’s scared of having them yell at them,” Unz said.

Ron Keeva Unz is not scared, and he’s anything but typical.

Unz was born to a single mother. When he was growing up, they lived with his grandmother in North Hollywood. Sometimes, the family had to rely on welfare.

Unz excelled in school – in second grade he was tested as having a genius-level IQ, 214. He was more interested in math and debate competitions than girls or sports, and at 17 he won the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search for a paper he did on black holes.

He attended Harvard on a scholarship, double-majoring in theoretical physics and ancient history, and developing a keen interest in public policy. His mother had been active in the anti-Vietnam War movement, and as a child he had gone door to door for presidential candidate George McGovern. But he was repelled by Jimmy Carter, and, like some other college students of the early 1980s, Unz gravitated toward Ronald Reagan and conservatism.

Unz graduated from Harvard in 1983. After a one-year fellowship at Cambridge University, he went to Stanford to pursue a physics doctorate. But a summer job on Wall Street turned him in a different direction: Unz developed mortgage-related software that he parlayed into his own business, which he launched in New York in 1987 and then moved to Palo Alto.

Unz became a politician in his own right in 1994, when he mounted an unsuccessful Republican primary challenge to Governor Pete Wilson of California. He garnered a surprisingly high 34 percent of the vote and, after his defeat, helped lead the fight against Wilson’s Proposition 187, a measure to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants.

Two years later, Unz heard about a group of Hispanic parents in Los Angeles who were protesting that schools weren’t teaching their children English. Unz said he always thought bilingual education was a bad idea, and that protest spurred him to action.

”When a program has gotten so crazy parents have to hold picket signs outside their own elementary school,” he said, ”I had to do something about it.”

Unz launched a group called English for the Children in 1997 and drafted a ballot initiative that would replace bilingual education with one year of English immersion.

Proposition 227 passed with 61 percent of the vote. In November 2000, Unz repeated the feat in Arizona, where Proposition 203 won with 63 percent of the vote.

Now Unz has his sights set on Massachusetts.

Lincoln Tamayo, principal of Chelsea High School, is chairman of Unz’s Massachusetts initiative, at the millionaire’s behest.

”He’s a very driven man,” Tamayo said.

Scott S. Greenberger can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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