Maligned millionaire Unz stands firm in conviction
by Ed Hayward
Wednesday, October 23, 2002
He has been assailed by his critics as anti-immigrant. One foe likened him to a
Nazi. Mostly, he's derided as ``that millionaire,'' an outsider intent on
meddling in the educational policies of states where he doesn't live.
Ron Unz, the second-generation American offspring of Russian Jews who immigrated
to Los Angeles, professes to have found bilingual education puzzling since his
years at North Hollywood High School.
``It just never made any sense to me to have these children stuck in classes
being taught in Spanish. Why not learn English?'' Unz, 41, said during a recent
interview from his offices in Palo Alto, near San Francisco.
Unflappable even during face-to-face confrontations, Unz remains unwavering in
his conviction that there's no proof traditional bilingual education has ever
worked. About his wealth, he claims his financial software firm, Wall Street
Analytics, is modest when measured against his Silicon Valley neighbors.
``I'm not that rich,'' he said.
Yet he spent $2 million of his own money in 1994 to run an insurgent challenge
to former California Gov. Pete Wilson, emerging with 34 percent of the GOP
primary vote. In 1998, he spent an estimated $700,000 of his money on
Proposition 227, the California ballot measure that nixed bilingual education
for more than 1 million students.
To date, Unz has spent $100,000 of his money to overturn bilingual education
programs in Massachusetts, one of seven states that still mandate the practice.
He also has a measure pending in Colorado and won a 2000 referendum in Arizona.
He targeted California, he said, because he found students mired in the stagnant
sea of ineffective programs that handcuffed the language acquisition and overall
academic achievement of students.
Unz admits the data that proves any success stemming from the measure is
limited. But he points to second-graders who took California's STAR exams in
2001. More Latinos and limited English speakers not enrolled in bilingual
education have scored above the 50th percentile since 1998, rising to a peak of
35 percent in 2001.
But the percentage of bilingual education students scoring in the upper half of
the exam has steadily dropped to just over 10 percent last year.
``The percent of limited English students not in bilingual education reading at
or above grade level is almost three times as great as the ones in bilingual,''
said Unz. ``That says to me it's working.''
Critics of the Unz proposal cite the relatively unremarkable improvement in
California of the number of students reclassified from learning English to
exhibiting proficiency in the language.
His opponents point to other California numbers, particularly the percentage of
students reclassified from English learners to fluent in English. Except for a
spike in 2001 - when 9.1 percent of English learners were reclassified as fluent
- the percentage of students redesignated has remained at roughly 7.6 to 7.8
percent a year - or about 115,000 kids.
But Unz argues those numbers are skewed by the fact that schools receive
additional state and federal funding for their English learners - thereby
rendering the reclassification rate suspect in his mind.
``Basically, it's so they can keep their government funding,'' said Unz. ``I
don't care how they label these students. If a student is doing well on a
standardized test given in English, then he or she is probably learning
Tim Duncan, a Cambridge resident whose son attends a two-way bilingual program
where English and Spanish learners are in the same classes, said the ballot
campaign is personal. His son's school - where students learning English and
Spanish work in the same classrooms - could be dissolved by Unz's initiative,
depending on the ultimate interpretation of the law.
``I think Unz could have been a positive force at one point,'' said Duncan,
co-chairman of the Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers, which
opposes Question 2. ``But now he's just adding to the division and frustration.
Now it's about campaigns and not about a kid's education.''
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