Bell strikes down bilingual regulations

The switch in federal education policy to greater reliance on state and local initiative has begun.

Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell got it started with his first official act, the withdrawal of controversial proposed bilingual education regulations, on Feb. 2.

The rules were an easy target because they had generated considerable opposition. Congress had forbade their implementation before June 1, and the Education Department had granted a major exception in the last weeks of the Carter Administration.

The regulations would, in most cases, have required school districts to meet their constitutional obligation to help students who speak little English by teaching them basic subjects in their native tongues.

Instead, Bell’s action will permit them to “use any way that has proven to be successful.” In December, the department authorized Fairfax County (Va.) schools to provide special instruction solely in English.

Bell said withdrawal of the proposals in no way diminishes school district responsibility to give special attention to these students.

“I am committed to civil rights,” he said. “No school administrator should read anything to the contrary in this action.”

He called the proposed regulations “harsh, inflexible, burdensome, unworkable and incredibly costly.” The department has estimated it would have cost $1 billion to implement them over the first five years. “There is no quicker way to kill a civil rights law than to enforce it with heavy-handed misdirection,” said Bell.

The rules were highly controversial within the education community and among civil rights advocates. The Hispanic community favors the bilingual approach; about 70 per cent of the 3.5 million school children whose English is limited speak Spanish as a first language. In many predominantly Hispanic communities, many educators concede, the bilingual approach is the most efficient. A large proportion of the student body speaks the same language and bilingual teachers are available to teach them. Advocates of this method are afraid that without the rules, school districts will be able to discriminate against students who are usually poor and underrepresented in the education establishment.

But in other communities, particularly those with large numbers of Southeast Asian refugees, the students speak a wide variety of languages and few, if any, bilingual teachers are available. That was the case in Fairfax County.

Many members of the education community attacked the rules as a federal prescription of teaching methods.

Bell, who once lobbied for a federal education department, nonetheless believes in state and local sovereignty over educational policy. His action is seen as his first move in that direction. (See NJ, 10/18/80, p. 1736. )

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