Early on as US President, Ronald Reagan must choose whether or not to force local public schools to educate non-English-speaking students in their mother tongues.
Last August, such a rule on mandatory bilingual education was proposed by the new US Department of Education for an estimated 3.5 million children. It would have gone into effect in 1981 if President Carter had been reelected.
Although the Republican platform calls for "local education programs" to help students become proficient in English, the President-elect's advisers say the regulation -- as well as the Department of Education -- will be weakened, if not withdrawn.
"The federal government can provide guidance and assistance for bilingual education at the local level, but not a heavy-handed mandate," suggests Sheldon Steinbach, a Reagan transition team member and counsel for the American Council on Education. "Local school boards need flexibility in implementing a national policy."
Reagan aides cite growing public resentment over forced bilingualism, pointing to the 3-to-2 passage of a November referendum in Miami that prohibits spending on non-English programs or for "promoting any culture other than that of the United States. . . ."
And the proposed requirement so piqued Congress that in December it passed a rider to a 1981 funding bill that would delay the rule's implementation until June.
Still, the Department of Education's controversial proposal was meant to comply with a 1974 US Supreme Court decision. The justices, citing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, said students are discriminated against because of national origin if schools fail to provide special help in teaching English. And in 1978 , the government signed an agreement in a federal court case, agreeing to issue the regulation.
The proposed rule, which has irritated many local school officials, would require special teaching of English along with transitional instruction of other subjects in a student's first language. It would cost as much as $591 million to implement, with Washington expected to pick up about one-third of the tab.
Without tough federal enforcement of local bilingual programs, say advocates of the regulation, large numbers of immigrant children will fall behind their peers in social studies, math, science, and other areas.
If the Reagan administration does not issue such a regulation, "we will have to bring in these programs through ligitation, case by case," says Lita Taracido , counsel for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc. in New York.
"If you leave it up to the localities, many kids will be left in the lurch," she adds.
A number of cases involving bilingual education are pending in the courts. But they involve only programs using federal funds, and are based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the nasis of "race, color, or national origin."