When a new federal agency is born, its first youthful act is to try to find something to do. Often it finds the wrong thing to do. This is exactly what has happened in the case of the newly created Department of Education.
Its immediate outreach was to try to prove how powerful it could be. After its pencils were sharpened and its computers set in motion, it set out to coerce every school in every county in every state to mount a nationwide system of total bilingual education.
It stipulated that all mandated courses should be taught in the native language of any of its non-English-speaking pupils. In Fairfax County, Va., near Washington, where there are 163 schools and 128,000 students of whom 6,000 are foreign-born, they require 50 different tongues, including Vietnamese, Korean, Urdu, and Swahili.
It isn't as though the new Department of Education proposed some general guidelines in the form of polite suggestions and asked for the experienced comments of the nation's public school systems.That did not occur to the eager bureaucrats. They said in effect, "Do it our way -- or else."
The "or else" was that the federal government would haul the county and state school officials into court and cite them for violation of law.
The department's lawyers are threatening to deploy the Supreme Court to bring the recalcitrant to book. Here, fortunately, they are running into trouble. The court never did mandate an all-inclusive bilingual system of education. The department is enacting its own legislation since the court in a 1974 decision held only that special provision must be made for non-English-speaking students. The court left it to the states and local school boards to determine how this need should be met.
Actually no adequate research has been done on whether full-scale bilingual teaching is the best way to provide non-English-speaking pupils with the kind of education which will equip them to live and work in American society. It is one way but it is unproved that it is "the" way, as the federal government wants to make it.
Another way is to give the foreign-language students an intensive training in English -- total immersion as Berlitz does -- and then move them promptly into all the other subjects taught in English.
At the very least, shouldn't the Department of Education fund some study and experimentation to discover how well the different approaches to this problem work out in practice, before assuming to push the public schools into one system which has never been adequately tested?
The school board of Fairfax County, the nation's 12th largest school district in enrollment, believes it is doing a good job of helping its non-English-speaking pupils get a quality education and to be ready when they finish to participate in the mainstream of American culture. It and other school districts are opposing the federal crusade to create a whole system of bilingual education which would in the end, they believe, lead to a multilingual nation, grievously divided in its culture with constantly growing layers of unassimilated immigrants and refugees.
In such a situation America as a "melting pot" would be a neglected and vanishing goal.
There is one thing the federal government ought not to be doing and that is trying to run the public schools. I am not saying there is no role for the Department of Education, but it ought not to be taking over the responsibility of the states. I see nothing in the Constitution which delegates this authority to Washington and Washington ought not to be allowed to seize it.
The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution reads: "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively or to the people."
Wouldn't it be well to keep education where it belongs?
It is all to the good that Congress, which created the Department of Education, is getting very uneasy about the mandatory "guidelines" being implanted on public schools so highhandedly. As columnist William Raspberry has remarked in the Washington Post, "That makes no sense in any language."