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2003-03-01 23:42:04

Bilingual Ed. Critic's Comments About Paige Spark Racism Charges

By Michelle R. Davis


Bilingual education opponent Ron K. Unz tried to explain his words early this month after finding himself in hot water for questioning the qualifications of Secretary of Education Rod Paige, indirectly linking that appraisal to Mr. Paige's race.

But the California businessman stopped short of an apology for calling Mr. Paige, in an e-mail, the "dimmest member" of President Bush's Cabinet and saying the secretary was hired because he is black.

"I'd be the first one to admit my comments were quite, quite insensitive," Mr. Unz said in an interview. "But everything in that e-mail is based on what I'd learned in major-media articles." In a follow-up e-mail Aug. 1, Mr. Unz said it appeared Mr. Paige's position in the Cabinet represents "tokenism" because Mr. Bush does not permit the education leader much influence. In the same note, Mr. Unz expressed surprise at the strong reaction and number of news articles his words prompted.

Mr. Unz's initial comments, sent July 15 to hundreds who receive regular electronic updates from him, raised the ire of a variety of groups and individuals, who labeled Mr. Unz a racist.

Some say his statements could hurt his continuing efforts to replace states' bilingual education classes with one-year English-immersion programs. Mr. Unz has had success in California and Arizona, where he financed ballot initiatives to largely dismantle bilingual education. Now, he's promoting the English-immersion approach in Colorado and Massachusetts.

Voters in both states may consider such a measure in November.

"Mr. Unz discredits himself and risks discredit to his cause with his ton of discourse," Darnell L. Williams, the president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, said in a statement. The group opposes Mr. Unz's ideas on language instruction.

Mr. Unz's first e-mail was sent after Secretary Paige appeared in Colorado and, in effect, publicly opposed Mr. Unz's ideas.

The e-mail noted that Mr. Paige is a "black former football coach" and said he got his job because of President Bush's "intense support for 'Affirmative Access.'" The lengthy missive also said Mr. Paige's "lack of ability" meant that he "played virtually no role" in the administration's key education measure, the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.

Return Fire In the wake of the e-mail, Mr. Unz was blasted by a long list of groups and public officials, including the National Council of La Raza and Colorado Commissioner of Education William J. Moloney. The chairman of Mr. Unz's Massachusetts initiative, Lincoln Tamayo, also distanced himself from the comments, as did Massachusetts Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney, likewise a supporter of the Unz proposal.

On July 18 and Aug. 1, Mr. Unz sent new e-mails seeking to clarify his comments.

Mr. Paige has not responded directly, but Department of Education spokesman Daniel Langan called Mr. Unz's statements "outrageous and insulting."

"The secretary is an award- winning educator with a record of achievement as a dean, a coach, and a school board member, and as superintendent of one of our country's largest school districts," Mr. Langan said.

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