If one trait characterized the life of Carlos Bonilla, the nation’s foremost advocate for Latino youth and a leader in the school choice movement, it was his unwillingness to compromise his high ideals. Tragically, the life of this giant of a man, whose warmth and exuberance touched all who knew him, was suddenly cut short by a heart attack on February 18, 2004.
Trained as a cardiologist and with a doctorate in molecular biology, the Colombian-born Bonilla taught at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, writing several medical textbooks and leading numerous research projects.
In midlife, anguished by the dysfunctional public schools in which he saw his beloved Hispanic youth languishing, he left medicine to become a school choice advocate. Not content simply to write about the problems of Latinos, Bonilla moved into a barrio of the California inland port city of Stockton, where he lived among immigrant Latino laborers and dodged the bullets of the teenage gangs he wrote about.
This modern-day Man of La Mancha used his sharp tongue and even sharper pen to lance opponents of school reform. He authored or co-authored 16 books, including School Dropouts: The Tragedy of America’s Undereducated Youth. In 1997, Bonilla co-authored A Choice for Our Children: Curing the Crisis in America’s Schools, in which he wrote eloquently of the “Zip Code Segregation” that consigned Latinos to fifth-rate public schools. More recently, he co-authored many articles with his partner Joy Goss.
In 1998, Bonilla helped persuade the California Board of Education to reform its dropout rate reporting, a change that resulted in the bombshell news a year later that California was losing half of its Latinos and a third of its students overall to dropping out.
In the last weeks of his life, Bonilla had been ecstatic about passage of the Washington DC voucher program and predicted its success would win victories for school choice across the nation. It is now left to the rest of us to make sure that dream becomes a reality throughout the land.
Alan Bonsteel, an emergency room physician, co-authored A Choice for Our Children with Carlos Bonilla.