Los Angeles Times
Sunday, November 9, 1997
Latino Crowd Hostile to Author of Bid to Curb Bilingual
By NICHOLAS RICCARDI, Times Staff Writer
Billionaire businessman Ron Unz took his campaign to virtually end bilingual
education in California into hostile territory Saturday when he appeared
at a community forum in the Pico-Union district on Latino issues.
Unz was officially scheduled to debate a
staff attorney from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational
Fund on the merits of an initiative the entrepreneur is seeking to put
on the June ballot to replace bilingual education with a one-year English
immersion program for young students. But at times it seemed he was debating
the entire audience.
"What are you basing this on? How many
bilingual programs have you visited?" shouted an incensed Aida Diaz,
a Santa Monica bilingual education teacher. "Why does a billionaire
have an interest in this? . . . You could be spending your money on something
Through it all, Unz appeared unruffled. Smiling,
he laid out his views in a soft, slow voice: That 25 years of bilingual
education have failed the state's children and that Latinos have borne
the brunt of the consequences.
"The only way you can get a good job
and succeed is if you speak English," he said. "And schools are
not doing a good enough job" teaching English.
Unz is a software entrepreneur who staged
a spirited bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1994 but
was a strong opponent of the anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187 that
year. He said his initiative was inspired by stories about Latino parents
having to picket a local school to get their children out of bilingual
classes. He needs 433,269 verified signatures by Dec. 1 to win the measure
a spot on the ballot, and he said last week that he had 600,000 signatures.
"The current [bilingual education] system
we have is a failure," Unz said. "The only hope of changing the
system is our initiative."
He received polite applause from perhaps
two in the crowd of about 40. Cheers were reserved for MALDEF's Silvia
Argueta, who called the measure "political opportunism [on] the backs
of our children."
She said that if non-English-speaking pupils
spent their first school year only studying English, they would lag in
other subjects. "English is not the sole answer. It is an important
answer," she said.
Then the audience jumped in. Though Unz repeatedly
cited a Times poll showing overwhelming support for his initiative among
Latino parents, the Latino activists who made up much of the crowd were
One teacher asked Unz what academic research
he had consulted. The businessman said he relied on largely anecdotal evidence,
comments from Latino parents in newspapers and his immigrant mother's ability
to learn English in her first year of school in Boyle Heights despite speaking
none of the language at home.
Other teachers took issue with Unz's citation
of a statistic that only 5% of all students in the state who enter school
not speaking English learn the language annually. They said that figure
ignores research showing that it takes several years to master English.
Replied Unz: "Schools are paid more money so long as children don't
learn English and are punished with less money if the kids learn English.
Maybe then you can understand why it takes seven years" to master
Argueta said any problems with bilingual
education should be fixed through the Legislature. "This initiative
is not the answer to what ails our educational system," she said.