W.'s Strange Flirtation

William F. Buckley
|
Posted: Jul 20, 2001 12:00 AM
It is, alas, hard to measure the collapse of the Bush administration in the matter of education. The bill that is making its way through Congress has good points in it, even as it can be said, with Christian resolution, that Senator Kennedy has good points in him -- indeed it is mostly a Kennedy bill. The national despair over bad education is as dogged as the administration's refusal to do anything substantive about it. Education is almost always listed as the first concern of the citizenry.

Well, there are two ways to better education in those parts of the country where education languishes. One is to encourage competitive schooling; another is to mercy-kill bilingual education.

On the matter of vouchers, millions have been spent and very little progress recorded. The teachers' unions, the most disciplined in the country -- setting aside the inchoate union of trial lawyers -- have obstructed private schooling as if it were the enemy rather than the friend of public schooling. The voucher can be said to have run into a stone wall, political and constitutional.

But the persistence of bilingual education is very difficult to understand, and millions, under the present system, will find it difficult to understand why as mature "Americans" they will feel estranged from the American mainstream. And it isn't the fault of the immigrants. It is the fault of the professionals whose stake, very simply, is in federal bilingual money. They are the equivalent of the class of Americans who made horse carriages in 1910, averring the right to continue in their profession athwart the advent of the automobile.

There is much seething on this subject, with a column by Ruben Navarrette Jr. that ran in The Chicago Tribune, another by John O'Sullivan in National Review, both deeply informed. But the great presence onstage in this struggle has been Ron Unz, a California software millionaire who has made the cause his own.

He did this by sponsoring plebiscites on the subject first in California, then in Arizona. Now get this figure: In California, the unions outspent him 25-to-1. Yet Proposition 227 prevailed with a 22-point margin. Flash forward to Arizona, 2000. There the bilingualists outspent him again, but this time by a mere 10-to-1. The anti-bilingual cause nevertheless won by a 27-point margin. Contrast the presidential contest in Arizona that same year: W. won by a mere 1-point margin.

Mr. Unz is going to carry on the fight in Colorado, but he is wondering, What does it take to get the government of the United States to cut out this subsidy of anti-Hispanic education?

The case for language reform isn't the personal project of Ron Unz. The need for that reform is something on the order of a pulsating national consensus. The founder of the California Association of Bilingual Education has admitted he was wrong in the 30 years he supported bilingualism, becoming now a convert to the English cause. Then came The New York Times, with a front-page story hailing the dramatic success of education when done by English immersion. Soon after, others called for reform: USA Today, The Washington Post, "CBS Evening News," Jim Lehrer. Ron Unz wrote analyses and hectored his point in the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

In Colorado the leader of his campaign is one of the state's most prominent Hispanic leftists, finally converted, and an enthusiastic convert.

The bilingualists hold out for their patronage by recapitulating old horror stories about the taunting of Mexican students by ethnocentric grammar-school children. But their resistance is sustained by the misdirected enthusiasm of President Bush.

Speaking in Miami a year ago, he said: "We're now one of the largest Spanish-speaking nations in the world. ... Go to Miami or San Antonio, Los Angeles, Chicago, or West New York, New Jersey, and close your eyes and listen. You could just as easily be in Santo Domingo or Santiago or San Miguel de Allende." Yes, but you're not. You're in Miami and San Antonio and Los Angeles and Chicago and New Jersey. Mr. Bush seems to be discovering the joys of bilingualism. Is Canada his model?

It is an entirely different matter to encourage Hispanics to continue to know Spanish, and indeed to encourage Americans to learn Spanish. But the ground of education needs to be in the national idiom, and the demonstrations by Mr. Unz and others tell us one thing very directly: To the extent education in America in grammar schools and high schools is conducted other than in English, the students are suffering, and their disabilities will diminish their success in life -- and will encourage, in the republic, a cultural schism of benefit to no one.

President Bush's advisers may think they are currying favor with the Hispanic community, but that community prospers to the extent it exposes its children to the national language.