Reagan administration wants to change bilingual education. Bennett says current law fails to help most deserving kids, but critics disagree

Secretary of Education William Bennett said Thursday that the Department of Education (DOE) will seek to allow local school districts more ``flexibility'' in the way they teach English to native language speaking students. In a speech before the Association for a Better New York, a business and civic group, the Secretary called the current method of bilingual education ``a failure.''

``After $1.7 billion of Federal funding, we have no evidence that the children whom we sought to help . . . have benefited,'' he said. ``Too many children have failed to become fluent in English.''

At a simultaneous press conference in Washington, Undersecretary of Education Gary Bauer said DOE ``would begin to move on two fronts'' in changing the current regulations, which require children to take classes in their native language until they achieve fluency in English.

In order to reach this goal they are given ``English as a Second Language'' training.

Bauer said the Department will work both to inform minority parents that ``they should have the final say-so in how best to school their children,'' and will vigorously ``oppose the idea that Washington should dictate how children are taught.''

``If El Paso and Phoenix want different teaching methods, they should be allowed to have them,'' Bauer says.

The Department will seek consensus on Capitol Hill this fall before submitting a bill later in the year.

Increased flexibility at the local level will result in such language programs as ``Structured Immersion,'' and ``English as a Second Language'' -- a much more English-intensive intruction, experts say, requiring children to pick the language up at a much faster pace.

Bauer told the Monitor that though critics will try to turn DOE's action into an anti-Hispanic or minority issue, ``We want to make clear in the strongest language possible our committment to language-minority children, and to bringing them into the economic mainstream.''

Because of the poor record of bilingual education in America, Bauer said, ``to not recommend changes would show we did not care.''

Critics of the proposal say there are two main faults in Mr. Bennett's argument: control at the local level, and the research base Bennett uses to describe the effects of bilingual education.

John Traszina of the Mexican-American Legal Defense fund says that Mr. Bennett ``seems to feel that if you take the control away from Washington, you take the politics out of it.'' But Mr. Traszina says just the opposite is true. If local districts take control of bilingual education, ``then school boards and not educators will decide how our children are taught,'' he says.

``It's a potentially loaded situation'' at the local level, Traszina continues, ``that can easily create divisiveness and animosity in a community, especially in the Southwest.''

Traszina adds that not only does Bennett's proposal threaten ``the progress we have made over the last 17 years -- and which recent SAT scores have borne out,'' but it will also ``hamper progress in a small school, which now won't get the guidance, support, and direction from DOE that it needs.''

Language experts such as Dr. Kenji Hakuta of Yale University also question the research Bennett used to discredit bilingual education.

To date, Hakuta says, the studies in bilingual education are ``weak and unclear.'' So much so, he says, that it would be ``impossible to draw a pedagogical argument from them.''

Hakuta feels Secretary Bennett is ``inflating the picture that bilingual education is serving to maintain the home language.''

In fact, he notes, the most recent studies by Development Associates, an education research firm (financed by DOE), suggest that current bilingual programs are successful in ``gearing students toward the mainstream.''

A little known fact is that half of all bilingual education students are in mainstream classes by grade two, says Hakuta. And the majority by grade five.

But many reporters and administrators, he says, seem ``only to notice the unsuccessful ones.''

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