Bilingual bellwether at bay

It took nearly two years, but the Reagan administration has finally come up with a way to abandon bilingual education and avoid taking the blame for doing so. The solution, it seems, is to let the states do it first.

In a slick version of the New Federalism, the Department of Education recently decreed that school districts will no longer be held accountable for federal bilingual agreements that require native language instruction for children who speak little or no English. The states, so the theory goes, know best when it comes to spending federal education dollars.

Now, however, Illinois has taken the Reagan plan one step further. The state is on the verge of rewriting its own bilingual education law, allowing local school boards to choose from a number of instructional methods for non-English speakers, including the option of choosing no method at all.

But there's a catch. While Illinois blindly follows Washington's lead, the Reagan administration is busy changing the government's test for civil rights compliance, particularly in the area of equal educational opportunity. If the administration has its way, a state's bilingual program will no longer be judged by its results but by its intentions, which means that school districts in Illinois may soon find themselves in the enviable position of being measured by whatever standards they set for themselves. And as any good educator will tell you, a test without standards is really no test at all.

While other states have repealed or amended their bilingual laws in the last year, the changes proposed in Illinois are particularly significant. The state has long been a bellwether in the education of language minority children; in 1971, Illinois became the first state to allocate funds for bilingual education. Under the current law, the state government spends nearly 10 times what it receives in federal aid to bilingual programs. Last year, those programs served more than 37,000 children throughout the state.

More important, Illinois' bilingual law works. During the 1981-82 school year , 5,201 children - 14 percent of those enrolled in the state's bilingual programs - moved successfully into an all-English curriculum, while only 1,461 students, or 3.9 percent, dropped out, moved away, or withdrew from bilingual programs. Scores based on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a measure of reading achievement, indicate that Chicago's bilingual students scored better than expected compared with English-speaking students in compensatory programs.

Nevertheless, with encouragement from Washington, the State Board of Education has recommended three major revisions in Illinois' six-year bilingual mandate. If adopted the changes would:

* Exclude any reference to a specific methodology of instruction. The law now requires transitional bilingual education (TBE), in which children are taught in their native languages while they learn English.

* Eliminate the requirement to teach history and culture as part of the bilingual program.

* Allow local school boards to decide the means and extent of parent and community involvement in bilingual programs. The law now requires parental participation.

''Illinois is doing what the Reagan administration would like Congress to do, '' says William J. Clohan Jr., who until his ouster last April was Reagan's under secretary of education. ''They would like to redefine bilingual education and what constitutes a limited English proficient child. This way they'll be able to show less need (for federal support) and spend less money.''

Indeed, the Reagan administration has gone out of its way to show local school districts that it no longer intends to enforce civil rights agreements under which more than 800,000 children are currently enrolled in transitional bilingual programs. In his first official act as secretary of education, Terrel Bell withdrew pending civil rights regulations for federally supported bilingual programs. While Bell's action was largely symbolic - the regulations had been widely criticized and would have faded anyway - it set the tone for an abrupt reversal in federal civil rights policies to suit the ideological and budgetary goals of the new administration.

On April 23, in testimony before the Senate subcommittee on education, arts, and humanities, Secretary Bell urged Congress to adopt amendments to the Bilingual Education Act that would permit a mix of instructional approaches for language minority students.

The administration's amendments, Mr. Bell noted, ''confirmed our belief that school districts are in the best position to evaluate the needs of their students and to design programs in response to those needs.'' The legislation, he added, would allow school districts ''to propose programs which use both languages or which use English exclusively. Whatever a school district proposes would be justified on the basis of an assessment of the needs of the children present in the district.''

What Mr. Bell didn't tell the subcommittee was that the administration is also willing to give school districts the power to police themselves by advocating a ''means'' test to measure civil rights compliance. Under a ''means'' test, a school district's bilingual program would be judged within the law if the district can show it took ''reasonable steps'' to meet the needs of its language minority students.

It is this approach that makes the events in Illinois so alarming. If the federal government adopts the means test, and Illinois decides to allow school districts to choose their own bilingual programs, it will become virtually impossible to guarantee civil rights compliance. There will be, in short, no one left to mind the store.

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