Magazine article Newsweek

Habla Ingles, Por Favor: Ron Unz Has Battled Bilingual Ed out West. Now He Takes on the Nation's Largest School District-New York

Magazine article Newsweek

Habla Ingles, Por Favor: Ron Unz Has Battled Bilingual Ed out West. Now He Takes on the Nation's Largest School District-New York

Article excerpt

Even in a high-tech culture that celebrates eccentricity, Ron Unz is--to be polite about it--an unusual character. A Silicon Valley software mogul who studied theoretical physics and ancient history at Harvard, Unz ran unsuccessfully for California's GOP nomination for governor in 1994, when he was 31. Two years later he tried and failed to pass a campaign-finance referendum. Now 38, Unz is on a one-man crusade to end bilingual education. "It's a well-intentioned but severely misguided policy," he says, "that has resulted in a state-mandated segregation system for Hispanic and immigrant children."

Unlike other techno-entrepreneurs who have funded education projects in recent years, Unz, a bachelor, has no children of his own and, it seems, little connection to the communities whose education policies he seeks to overturn. He is an unknown on Silicon Valley's glitzy charity circuit, where the digerati flex their increasingly influential philanthropic and political muscle. Perhaps strangest of all, in a place where "going public" and burning millions was until recently regarded as a sign of power, Unz appears to be almost pathologically frugal. Working alone from his sparsely furnished home in Palo Alto, armed with little more than a Palm Pilot and a laptop, Unz relentlessly barrages educators, elected officials and media organizations with e-mails railing against the "monstrous stupidity" of bilingual education. He also flies coach around the country, recruiting volunteers--usually immigrant parents anxious for their children to learn English--to staff branches of his political-action committee English for the Children. He charges parents $1 for his services in getting a referendum on the ballot, strategically buying media time (in a business where ad budgets routinely run into the millions, he sticks to cheap radio spots and free appearances on cable television and local news programs) and making his case with op-ed pieces, such as the one he published last week in The New York Times, calling on the New York Board of Education to abandon, rather than reform, its bilingual program.

His methods have made Unz perhaps the most cost-effective amateur political consultant in American politics today. In 1998 he spent less than $1 million on a successful California ballot initiative--peanuts, compared with the $50 million or so spent on vanity campaigns for school vouchers--replacing traditional bilingual education, in which students are taught primarily in their native language, with English "immersion" classes. …

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