Bilingual-ed issue turns on money
Arizona Republic columnist
Nov. 16, 2002
By O. Ricardo Pimentel
The facts don't matter a whole lot. Money and a carefully tailored message do.
The issue is bilingual education generally but, specifically, the first election
to stop the Ron Unz "English-for-the-Children" juggernaut.
Measures to ban bilingual education and replace it with one-year English
immersion have made it to the ballot in four states. Only one, Colorado, has had
the wisdom or inclination to reject such an initiative, doing so by a 12-point
margin in last week's election.
On the same day, Massachusetts voted overwhelmingly to dismantle its bilingual
education program. Arizona voters did the deed two years ago, California voters
No, it isn't a great revelation that facts don't necessarily matter in politics.
If they did, we probably would have seen very different election results last
And there's a reason why the 97.1 percent of the folks who spent more money than
their opponents in last week's congressional races ended up winning.
But there's a lesson to be learned here nonetheless on the specific issue of
bilingual education. That's because Unz, the software millionaire who has
spearheaded these initiatives, isn't likely to go away despite the Colorado
loss. More initiatives in other states are probably in the offing.
So, here's the lesson.
The facts are on the side of bilingual education. Properly resourced, this
program works. Its goal is to transition non-English speakers to English while
maintaining their competencies in core topics by teaching them in their own
simply works better than English immersion, say the language-acquisition
And none of this matters.
Campaigns, unfortunately, are often not about who has the facts, but about who
has the most effective message. There's a difference.
John Britz is one of the consultants who crafted the strategy to defeat the Unz
initiative in Colorado.
He tells me that the campaign researched what happened in California and
Arizona. They also did extensive baseline surveys and focus groups.
One conclusion, difficult for activists on this matter to fathom: You don't win
this kind of election on the facts. There won't ever be enough time in your
standard campaign to educate folks on the complexities of language acquisition.
Simplicity is on the side of "English for the children," a slogan that is
evocative, ripe in imagery and just so easy to demagogue.
OK, obviously, future campaigns need to do better jobs of unmasking Unz and his
Not exactly. A demonization campaign will likely turn off fence-straddlers -
folks who might feel strongly about English, by God, being the language of this
country but who also might be swayed by such issues as parental choice and basic
fairness. Base a campaign on calling Unz a racist, an outsider/interloper - or
as they did in Massachusetts, likening him to a Nazi - and the shrillness will
drown out the intended message.
So, under these circumstances, what's the "right" message? Fairness? Cost? Not
entirely. Efficiency? Nope.
In Colorado, a big part of the message was, essentially, that Spanish-speaking
children would be mainstreamed too soon. The implicit message: Your own kids
will suffer because they will be in classes with kids who don't speak, read or
write English well.
Unz promptly accused the anti-initiative folks of scare tactics and
race-baiting. (Which strikes me a lot like the pot calling the kettle black).
But truth is a defense here. Kids in English immersion are more likely to be
pushed into the mainstream before they're ready. It's why so many educators
oppose efforts to dismantle bilingual ed.
Yes, "chaos in the classroom," as the commercials were tagged, probably wasn't
intended to appeal to Colorado voters' sense of fairness. They had the effect,
however, of broadening the issue. Bilingual education was no longer just a
"Latino problem." And it also helped to broaden this issue that important
opinion leaders in Colorado opposed the initiative because of the facts.
But what good is a message if you can't get it out? Money is another big reason
anti-Unz folks prevailed in Colorado.
In Arizona, bilingual education supporters spent a bit more than $100,000 in
their failed attempt to stop Unz. English for the Children about double that.
But the English Plus coalition in Colorado had a guardian angel in billionaire
heiress Pat Stryker. She contributed $3 million, used in a late-breaking
Simply, a billionaire trumps a millionaire.
Not fair? Probably. But neither have been English-for-the-Children campaigns
that relied on simplistic, coded and well-funded messages to elicit knee-jerk
Reach Pimentel at firstname.lastname@example.org or (602) 444-8210. His
column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.