WHAT was really the target of Education Secretary William J. Bennett's dressing down of the federal bilingual education programs? One suspects his criticism was but one peg for the securing of a much larger philosophical tent. Mr. Bennett wants the primary focus of bilingual education to be the teaching of English to non-English speaking students, and to give local school districts greater flexibility to determine the kind of bilingual instruction they want. As broad concepts, not much to quarrel with here. Any student not proficient in English is handicapped in American society. And while education is a state function in the American system, with state governments setting most standards for local districts, the states do pre fer to have federal bilingual education monies coming to them with fewer federal restrictions.
But the education secretary's critique of bilingual schooling efforts was widely perceived as hostile to the concept, not sufficiently sensitive to the needs of non-Anglo Americans, and curious in its timing, coming as it did a year after Congress had renewed the 1968 act. The secretary made a high-profile attack on the programs, assuring wide coverage. He said of the $1.7 billion of federal funds spent to date: ``We have no evidence that the children whom we sought to help -- that the children wh o deserve our help -- have benefited.''
Is there really ``no evidence'' of bilingual education's benefits? At the least, the improvement in Hispanic youths' scholastic achievement test scores suggests something must be going better for Spanish-background children. The failure to improve the tragic dropout rate of half of highschoolers, many of them Hispanic, may be an argument for more, not less, bilingual instruction. One is reminded of the earlier skepticism about the educational benefits of racial integration and the Head Start progr am.
Mr. Bennett appears to be staking out a philosophical approach to education consistent with Mr. Reagan's desire to repeal the activist role of federal involvement, eliminate federal spending on education, promote prayer in the schools (voluntary prayer, in Mr. Bennett's case), and provide government monies for private and parochial schooling. Local freedom of choice over bilingual education is consistent with the secretary's conviction that a voucher system -- in which parents or students could redeem ` `credits'' for tuition at nonpublic institutions -- would introduce healthy competition and be fairer to those who prefer nonpublic school alternatives. Bennett's predecessor, Terrell Bell, had concentrated on school performance, where the public had widely found the schools lacking. While also concerned with quality, Bennett seems to want to provoke a more fundamental debate on deeply held views regarding church and state, equal opportunity, government regulation, and individual choice.
For the first and second graders from non-English speaking families, who make up the bulk of bilingual ed students, who within a few years move into an all-English track, it may prove hard to see the benefits of Mr. Bennett's philosophical, ideological, and political broadside on the instruction they receive. The political risk to Bennett, the Reagan administration, and the Republican Party is that such attacks may appear chiefly provocative to a Congress which designed the program, biased in favor of t he Anglo, white, privileged majority, and less committed to the needs of Hispanics and other non-Anglos who are today's immigrant newcomers.