Signal on bilingualism

The new secretary of education's first major action -- dropping proposed bilingual education rules -- is a signal of reducing specific federal requirements on states and localities. It is not a signal of abandoning federal responsibility for protecting the rights of American children, including those who enter school with a primary language other than English. These points were made quite clear by Secretary Bell in announcing his controversial decision. They should be kept in mind as he and his staff go ahead with preparing what he described as more flexible regulations to meet the needs of the nation's estimated 3.6 million school-age children who are not proficient in English.

Some 70 percent of these children are Spanish speaking. And Mr. Bell is starting right off in the spirit of the platform endorsed by the President who appointed him: "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."

It was to reduce confusion about the civil rights requirements for local programs -- and to give rules for implementing them the force of law -- that the Department of Education offered the now rejected proposals last year. They were attacked and supported from many sides. Some welcomed the fact that, for the first time, a maximum limit (five years) was placed on the extent of bilingual education provided a given student, and that the teachers in other languages were required to be fluent in English. Some complained that the identification of eligible students was prescribed only below the ninth grade, and that bilingual classes were not required unless there were at least 25 eligible students of the same primary non-English language in two consecutive grades of a given school. Among all the matters spelled out, one question left dangling was what should be required to serve children found equally lacking in both English and their native tongue.

The need to dispel confusion remains. As does the basic object of the rules described by former Secretary Hufstedler: to teach English as quickly as possible to children of other languages while teaching them other subjects in a language they can understand so that they do not fall behind their English-speaking classmates in the meantime.

Therefore Secretary Bell should not delay in fashioning regulations to ensure that all schools know what they are expected to accomplish under civil rights legislation -- and under the 1974 Supreme Court decision interpreting it to require positive action on behalf of students not fluent in English. Since the court did not specify remedies, schools need guidance on what is acceptable -- without being stifled from the local initiative, energy, and inventiveness to reach the most appropriate and efficient solutions for local circumstances. For example, considering the quickness of young children in assimilating language, a program of intensified English instruction might be found a satisfactory alternative to teaching in another language.

The costs of any effective program must be seen in the perspective of the enormous loss to the nation of allowing a significant segment of its young people to fail to reach their potential because of language barriers. In helping them, the greatest care must be taken not to worsen those barriers by locking individuals or parts of the country into any other language as an encouraged alternative to English. They must be brought into the mainstream of America's official language both for their own sakes and to prevent a linguistic fragmentation that could go beyond healthy pl uralism and feed divisiveness.

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