WASHINGTON—A burgeoning dispute over federal rules on bilingual education has brought the honeymoon for the new Department of Education to a rapid close.
Less than four months into its existence, the agency has come under a barrage of criticism from major education groups for its attempt to spell out rules on how the nation’s schools should teach children with limited or no ability to speak English.
The rules Education Secretary Shirley M. Hufstedler proposed Aug. 5 marked her first major foray into the regulatory field.
Even before the Federal Register ink was dry, some education leaders were charging the department was overstepping its bounds and trying to dictate to the schools how to teach.
“The proposal is an unmitigated disaster. It threatens the fabric of American education and the future of our country,” charged Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Leaders of such groups as the National School Boards Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the national associations of elementary and secondary school principals joined Shanker in a letter to Mrs. Hufstedler attacking any federal mandate to force schools to teach youngsters in their native language.
The proposed federal rules stipulate that children who have a “primary language” other than English and score below the 40th percentile on an English test must be taught required subjects in both English and their native language.
Left open for public comment and a later decision was the question of whether students equally limited in both English and their native language should be taught in both languages.
Mrs. Hufstedler said more than 3.5 million youngsters in America have limited English proficiency. Seventy percent are Hispanic.
A subsequent analysis by her staff estimated that 1.3 million would qualify for bilingual education at a cost to the public schools of from $176 million to $592 million.
The schools already spend an estimated $169 million to $325 million on special language instruction for 831,000 children, mostly in “English as a Second Language” courses, not bilingual classes.
The rules would allow waivers for courses on English as a second language instead of bilingual instruction if a school district could show its method worked.
Last Wednesday, in approving a $14.2 billion appropriation for the education department, the House agreed, 213-194, to an amendment by Rep. John Ashbrook, R-Ohio, barring the department from requiring any program for children with limited English “other than one of intensive instruction in English.”
Michael J. Bakalis, deputy under secretary for intergovernmental affairs, said, “The issues are not clear cut. The research on effectiveness is mixed. I don’t know that there’s anything that shows ‘This is the definitive way to do it’.”
But Bakalis, a former state school superintendent in Illinois, said in an interview that bilingual instruction “makes sense,” particularly in enhancing the “positive self-concept” of non-English-speaking children. “If you put an 8-year-old in a geography class, there’s no way that child can learn geography if he doesn’t know the language,” he said.
Bakalis said it will not be easy to get enough teachers trained to teach in two languages. “Just to have bilingual individuals in classrooms who are not qualified as teachers is not going to do anybody any good,” he said.
Mrs. Hufstedler will personally open a round of public hearings on the issues Monday in San Antonio, Texas, to be followed by hearings in New York City on Sept. 9-10, Denver Sept. 10-11, New Orleans Sept. 15, San Francisco Sept. 16-17 and Chicago Sept. 17-18. The deadline for public comments has been extended from Oct. 6 to Oct. 20.
The department is issuing the rules to enforce Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which broadly prohibited discrimination in federally funded programs.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision in 1974, ruled 3,000 Chinese-speaking students in San Francisco were entitled under Title VI to special help. At an earlier stage of the case, Mrs. Hufstedler, as a federal appeals judge, had written a dissent in the Chinese students’ favor.