For three decades, the bilingual education law in Massachusetts – the nation’s first – has been set in stone. But the specter of an eccentric Silicon Valley millionaire with a hankering for public policy may force Beacon Hill to change it.

Ron K. Unz already has financed two successful antibilingual education ballot initiatives: in California in 1998 and in Arizona last month. Some dispute the scores, but seemingly dramatic gains at California schools using a one-year English ”immersion” strategy have converted even some former bilingual education supporters.

Last week, Unz was in New York City backing a nascent effort there, and if Massachusetts lawmakers don’t get with the program, he says, the Commonwealth could be next on the list.

”Certainly, I’m considering moving forward with an effort in Massachusetts,” Unz said, describing the state’s 1971 law as ”the most extreme version of mandatory native language instruction.”

The next chance for a ballot initiative here would be November 2002, so Unz wouldn’t organize a campaign for another year. Legislative action before then might keep him at bay, but he’s skeptical that anything substantial will happen on Beacon Hill.

”Maybe this year would be different, but I wouldn’t hold my breath,” he said.

But Representative Jarrett T. Barrios, who believes Massachusetts’ bilingual education law should be improved, not scrapped, said having Unz and his money on the horizon might spur changes that have been too long in coming.

”The fact that our law hasn’t kept up with advances in bilingual education pedagogy leaves a vacuum that becomes a political opportunity for anti-immigrant, antibilingual education forces,” said the Cambridge Democrat, who has assembled a task force in hopes of coming up with a reform bill.

Barrios points out that the Massachusetts Department of Education studied the California test results and concluded that ”it’s not completely clear” whether Unz’s English immersion strategy is responsible for the gains.

Under current Massachusetts law, every school district that has 20 or more children who have a limited grasp of English and speak the same language must provide a transitional bilingual program for up to three years. To start with, students are taught English, but they learn math, science, and other subjects in their native language. Gradually, however, they learn more and more English.

Barrios wants to give districts more flexibility. He cites a Cambridge program, for example, that uses ”two-way immersion” to teach all students both English and Spanish.

”The challenge for moderate politicians and forward-looking educators is to craft a bilingual education law that allows our children to benefit from advances in bilingual education instruction,” he said.

Roger Rice, who heads Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy Inc., a national pro-bilingual education group based in Somerville, put it more bluntly.

”We’ve got to hold off the crazies from California, but also figure out what concrete, specific things would make this program better,” Rice said.

Unz, 39, is a self-made millionaire. He was born out of wedlock, and he and his mother lived with his grandmother and subsisted on welfare. He attended Harvard on scholarship, and later studied at Cambridge and Stanford.

The financial services software company Unz founded in 1987, Palo Alto-based Wall Street Analytics, made him rich, but the millionaire still lives like a graduate student. A bachelor, he sleeps on a mattress on the floor, and goes to Burger King at least once a day.

He became a player in California politics in 1994, when he mounted an unsuccessful Republican primary challenge to Governor Pete Wilson. After his defeat, Unz became a leader in 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 says that he always thought bilingual education was a bad idea (he notes proudly that his mother spoke only Yiddish when she went to school, but learned English quickly because she was forced to), but that the Los Angeles protest spurred him to action.

”It seemed strange that parents had to carry picket signs because the schools wouldn’t teach their kids English,” he said. ”So I investigated and the details were far stranger and more indicative of failure than I ever expected.”

Unz launched ”English for the Children” in 1997, and drafted a ballot initiative that would replace bilingual education, which often went on for years, with one year of English immersion. Districts could grant waivers to parents who preferred bilingual education.

Unz’s California initiative, Proposition 227, passed with 61 percent of the vote. In November, he repeated the feat in Arizona, where Proposition 203 won with 63 percent of the vote.

The early results from California appear so rosy that many former bilingual education teachers and others who opposed Proposition 227 have had a change of heart.

The most prominent convert is Ken Noonan, superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District, 35 miles north of San Diego.

Noonan, a former bilingual teacher and founding president of the California Association of Bilingual Educators, fought Proposition 227. But the standardized test scores of the 24 percent of Oceanside students who speak English as a second language have shot up in the past two years, from single-digit percentiles to the 20s and 30s. Noonan is now a believer.

Many in Massachusetts who want to change the state’s bilingual education law cite Oceanside and the California experience.

”We should seize the moment and open up bilingual education to other ways of doing things,” said Rosalie P. Porter, an Amherst author and researcher who serves on Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll’s bilingual education advisory panel.

”Give children an opportunity to learn in different ways and see how it works. I would say it would work as well in Massachusetts as it has in California.”

But Barrios and others argue that the best approach isn’t English immersion or current Massachusetts law, but something in the middle. The goal, he said, is to eventually see students graduate who know two languages.

”What I’m against is one-size-fits-all, whether it’s immersion or transitional bilingual education,” Barrios said.

Mary Cazabon, who directs Cambridge’s bilingual education program, said ideas like two-way immersion are the way to go.

”If kids can learn two languages for the price of one, and not lose ground academically, I think it behooves us to provide these types of programs,” she said.

Comments are closed.