NEW YORK – After leading the revolt against bilingual education in California, Ron Unz would like to see one in New York City. Unz, a software millionaire who successfully promoted the Proposition 227 initiative there last year, believes that New Yorkers are even more determined than Californians to see their children educated in English.
“The poll numbers in New York are stronger than just about any other place I’ve looked,” said Unz, the chairman of a group called English for the Children. “We’re seriously exploring the possibility of putting a measure like Proposition 227 on the ballot in New York City.” He is considering sponsoring a petition drive to urge a referendum on an amendment to the City Charter.
Unz tested the local sentiment for a version of Proposition 227 by commissioning a poll asking whether all public school classes should be taught in English, with non-English-speaking students placed in an intensive one-year English immersion program (instead of the native-language classes now offered in bilingual education programs). Of the 1,411 residents of New York State polled by Zogby International, 79 percent said yes. Among New York City residents, 75 percent said yes.
The poll results may seem strange if you are under the popular impression that New York’s many immigrants are clamoring for bilingual education. In fact, immigrants generally want English. In national poll by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research organization in New York, 75 percent of foreign-born parents said the schools’ first priority should be to teach English quickly, even if that means that their children fall behind in other subjects.
Bilingual programs, begun as a well-intentioned experiment in the 1960s, proliferated thanks to federal money and orders from bureaucrats and judges. With bilingual teachers and theorists comfortably entrenched, the programs persisted even as parents and researchers concluded that they didn’t work. Instead of students gradually learning English and switching to mainstream classes – the ostensible goal of bilingual education – they remained trapped year after year in native-language classes.
Hispanic parents at a school in Los Angeles got so frustrated in 1996 that they started a boycott, demanding that their children learn English. The protest led to Proposition 227, which leading politicians, most major newspapers and the educational establishment fiercely opposed.
Hispanic advocacy groups called it a threat; many major newspapers editorialized against it. The initiative was denounced by the federal education secretary, Richard W. Riley. and the Superintendent of California’s public schools, Delaine Eastin, said it would cause chaos in the classroom. Bilingual teachers predicted trauma for their students.
Unz’s group was vastly outspent by the opposition, whose advertising campaign was financed by teachers’ unions and by A. Jerrold Perenchio, the chairman of Univision, the Spanish-language television network that stood to lose viewers if students began learning English. But in the end, the initiative was approved by 61 percent of the voters.
The change took effect this past year, and newspapers that had editorialized against Proposition 227 were soon running front-page headlines like “English- Only Teaching Is a Surprise Hit.” Teachers around the state marveled at how quickly students were picking up English. Statewide tests at the end of the year yielded no evidence of trauma or chaos: the students in the English immersion classes had made just as much progress in all subjects as the students in regular classes.
Buoyed by the California results, Unz’s group is supporting reforms elsewhere.
“A ballot initiative is probably the only way to get rid of bilingual education in New York,” Unz said. “It’s enormously unpopular with the public, but the City Council and the State Legislature pay more attention to the special interests that benefit from the program.”
Unz, who lived in Jackson Heights during the early years of his software business, was not surprised at the borough-by-borough breakdown of his poll. Bilingual education was opposed by 73 percent of the respondents in Brooklyn, 75 percent in Queens, 84 percent in the Bronx, and 85 percent in Staten Island. The least opposition, 68 percent, was in Manhattan.
“A lot of liberal intellectuals in Manhattan probably support bilingual education for ideological reasons,” Unz said. “It sounds like a politically correct way to help immigrants, and they don’t have enough contact with immigrants to know the truth. Manhattan intellectuals can afford to support bilingual education because they’re not personally affected by it. If it were their own kids, they’d be fighting to get them into English classes.”