The federal mandating of bilingual education is such a watershed question for the United States that the public ought to make full use of the present invitation to let Washington know its views. The Department of Education has set Oct. 6 as the deadline for accepting comments on proposed regulations specifying when primary and secondary school systems are required to offer classes in languages other than English. In addition, there will be hearings in several cities next month before the rules are put in final form.
The need for clarification of what schools must do has been evident ever since the US Supreme Court's 1974 decision in Lau v. Nichols. The court ruled that the San Francisco school system had violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to take positive action to help students (in this case Chinese-Americans) who were not fluent in English.
But the court did not spell out remedies, leaving such options as extra teaching of English or instruction in the student's first language. Circuit appeals court decisions have included upholding a New Mexico bilingual program ordered by a lower court and striking down a detailed Denver one as un unwarranted incursion into local authority.
For a time federal civil rights enforcers appeared to interpret the Suprme Court decision as requiring instruction in languages other than English. A 1975 report by the US Civil Rights Commission favored bilingual instruction: "Evidence gathered by the commission and others documents that language-minority students badly need an alternative to education in the monolingual English school system."
But later federal civil rights enforcers were instructed that bilingual education was not necessarily required to carry out the law. School systems have understandably felt some confusion. The news has dealt mainly with the large numbers of Spanish-speaking students, but there are also many others including those of Asian origin and the recent inflow of French-speaking Haitians.
So a clear set of guidelines, arrived at through vigorous public participation, will be welcome. And Education Secretary Shirley Hufstedler has offered sound principles for the pending regulations: "First, students must be taught English as quickly as possible. Second, they should not be permitted to fall behind their English-speaking classmates while they are learning English."
How best to implement such principles will be the question for discussion. The new Republican platform says that "there should be local educational programs which enable those who grew up learning another language such as Spanish to become proficient in English while also maintaining their own language and cultural heritage." How far should local programs be outlined by Washington? How far can Washington avoid outlining local programs without failing to enforce the law? The proposed rules would require that students clearly less proficient in English than in another language be offered classes in the other language; they would shift to regular classes as they improve their English. Still undecided is whether the same provision should be made for students performing at the same relatively weak level in both languages. Here is where it will be particularly important to reach conclusions that will encourage students to move forward in English, the language they will have to have to realize the opportunities offered by America.