WASHINGTON, Feb. 2—In his first major official act, Secretary of Education T.H. Bell today revoked proposed regulations that would have required public schools to teach foreign-speaking students in their native languages.
Mr. Bell, remarking he was seeking to ”telegraph a message of change to the American people,” said that the bilingual education rules proposed in the final months of the Carter Administration were ”harsh, inflexible, burdensome, unworkable and incredibly costly.”
The regulations would have required school districts with more than 25 foreign-speaking students to offer the students instruction in their native languages, as well as in English. Any variance from this would have required a waiver by the Department of Education.
$1 Billion in Five Years
If the rules had been allowed to go into effect, Mr. Bell said, the cost to the taxpayers over the next five years would have been about $1 billion. The rules, he added, were ”symbolic of the many ills that have plagued the Federal Government” and the new department that President Reagan has vowed to abolish.
The Department of Education estimated some months ago that there were more than 3.5 million children in this
In an interview, Secretary Bell discusses the future of the Department of Education. Page C1. country who spoke little or no English. Many of them face a severe learning handicap if taught only in English, the department said at that time.
An estimated 70 percent of those non-English-speaking children are Hispanic Americans. In New York City, for instance, the percentage of Hispanic pupils in the public schools rose from 23 in 1973 to 29.8 last year. There are large numbers of Hispanic Americans, too, in Florida, Texas, California and several other states.
Program in New York City
The withdrawal of the regulations will have no effect on New York City, which has a large and diverse bilingual education program already operating.
In addition to Hispanic persons, there are sizable numbers of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Cambodian children in this country who speak little or no English.
The proposed rules were designed to comply with a 1974 Supreme Court decision that held that Chinese-speaking students in San Franciso were being discriminated against, under civil rights laws, by being taught only in English. The High Court, however, did not specify what form of relief should be taken.
Mr. Bell said that until he and his staff could rewrite the bilingual education regulations to provide more flexibility for school districts the department would follow guidelines issued in 1975. These guidelines call for bilingual education in some instances but do not have the force of law.
”We will protect the rights of children who do not speak English well,” he said, ”but we will do so by permitting school districts to use any way that has proved successful.”
The controversy over enforced bilingual education escalated sharply last summer, with school boards and numerous education groups complaining that the Federal Government was trying to tell local school districts what to teach. Congress, too, joined in the dissent, voting to freeze the proposed regulations until June.
Today’s action was not universally applauded in Congress, however. Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, ranking Democrat on a Senate committee that oversees education, said he regretted the decision. Representative Robert Garcia, Democrat of the Bronx, predicted that the action would have a devastating effect on Hispanic people. And Representative Edward R. Roybal, Democrat of California, said the move would deny millions of children their civil rights.
Rules Viewed as ‘Intrusion’
In discarding the proposed regulations today, Mr. Bell reiterated a theme repeatedly sounded by President Reagan in last year’s campaign.
Calling the proposed rules ”an intrusion on state and local responsibility,” Mr. Bell said: ”Nothing in the law or the Constitution anoints the Department of Education to be national school teacher, national school superintendent or national school board. State departments of education are furious when we come out with regulations like this.”
About 500 school districts in the country already have some form of bilingual education program. Some of these have been partly financed under the Bilingual Education Act of 1967, which gives grants to school districts to help them cope with the problem of heavy influxes of foreigh-speaking students. The appropriation for this program in the current fiscal year is $174.8 million.