Education Hero Takes on State's Bilingual Dragon

WHAT would you call a school system where it’s illegal to teach immigrant children English? Insane comes to mind. Idiotic. Abusive. Doomed.

Well, guess what? That system exists right here, in New York City.

With the recent focus on education reform – or rather, the appalling lack of it – a disturbing fact of New York’s educational landscape often gets overlooked:

In 1974, the city’s Board of Education signed a federal consent decree requiring that public school students who are not proficient in English must be taught in the language they speak at home.

Bilingual education.

The outmoded concept has proven an abject failure. It has sentenced generations of public-school kids – including some born in this country – to second-class status, unable to read, write or reason effectively in English.

For 27 years, no one has had the guts to take on this madness.

Until now.

With the battle for school privatization a loss, the next great educational fight is already brewing. The man responsible for snuffing out bilingual ed in California is taking his show on the road and heading east.

The goal is to force city schools to immerse non-English speaking kids in the English language, the only teaching method that works.

Ron Unz is not an educator. He is a 39-year-old entrepreneur from California’s Silicon Valley who’s made millions developing software. He also is the child of immigrants.

Three years ago, he took on California’s bilingual-education establishment, leading the fight for a ballot initiative, Proposition 227, that no one thought would see daylight.

Although badly outspent and outshouted by the teachers and administrators who profit from bilingual ed, Prop 227 captured the popular vote in a landslide.

Bilingual ed is now history in California. And guess what?

“Those students are improving in reading and other subjects at often striking rates, according to standardized test scores,” the incredulous New York Times reported in August.

“New York is much worse,” Unz told me yesterday. “New York has one of the most extreme programs in the country.

“A literal reading of the consent decree says it is actually illegal to teach Hispanic children English in school.

“You have a situation in New York where children have to learn English after school or on weekends,” he said. “Bizarre!”

Unz is assembling lawyers to mount a legal fight against the consent decree. He also wants help from angry parents.

Unz got inspiration from my column last week about Rosalia Salazar. The Mexican-born mother of four complained bitterly that her 8-year-old daughter, although born in the United States, had learned no English at her Harlem school.

Mrs. Salazar hoped the private firm Edison would take over PS 161 and give her little girl a chance. Her hopes were dashed when parents sent Edison packing.

What hope do mothers like Mrs. Salazar have now?

Unz’s mother, who came from Europe, spoke no English as a child. Around age 5, she was immersed in the language in public school, and quickly became fluent.

“That really was the case for millions, possibly tens of millions of immigrants,” Unz said. “In New York 100 years ago, a huge fraction of Italian and Jewish and Greek immigrants didn’t speak English at home. They went to school and did fine.”

Unz lived in Queens for a short time in the late 1980s. So some might wonder why a West Coast kind of guy has such a keen interest in New York’s schools.

He may have political aspirations. Unz mounted a failed bid for the Republican nomination for California governor in 1994. He did this, he said, mainly because he disagreed with Gov. Pete Wilson’s anti-immigrant policies.

Whatever his motives, his fight against California’s bilingual-ed program – followed by another such battle in Arizona – has been a rousing success. New York may be ready for change, since polls indicate that bilingual ed is unpopular with parents right here.

But “since [Schools Chancellor] Harold Levy and the political establishment are unwilling to take on the consent decree, nothing can change,” he said.

We should support this noble effort. Or condemn another generation of public school kids to failure.

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