WASHINGTON—Education Secretary William Bennett is calling for reforms in bilingual education laws to give non-English speaking youngsters an earlier chance to learn America’s language.

”Too many children have failed to become fluent in English and have therefore failed to enjoy the opportunities they deserve,” Bennett said urging legislative changes.

In a speech prepared for delivery in New York and released in Washington Wednesday, Bennett said children too often stay in courses taught in their native language and later struggle in classes taught in English.

Bennett said schools, now required to teach pupils in their native tongues until they reach a certain proficiency in English, should be given greater flexibility so they can place more emphasis on English.

”After 17 years of federal involvement and after $1.7 billion in federal funding, we have no evidence that the children whom we sought to help — that the children who deserve our help — have benefited,” he said.

Bennett noted Hispanic youngsters, who make up a large percentage of the children in bilingual education courses, have a high school dropout rate of about 50 percent — double the national average.

”This figure is as tragically high now as it was 20 years ago” before Congress enacted the first in a series of progressively restrictive bilingual education statutes, he said.

Bennett said his department will explore the possibility of changing the Bilingual Education Act enacted by Congress in 1968 to meet the needs of non-English speaking students.

The secretary said he will seek regulatory changes to clarify legal requirements on native language instruction and try to give schools more flexibility in meeting them.

Bennett said the administration does not ”intend to prescribe one method or another” to meet the educational needs of non-English speaking students.

”Many school districts will undoubtedly continue to pursue programs with some instruction in the native language,” he said. ”In some circumstances, these can be very useful in helping students keep up with their classwork until they become fluent in English.”

But, he said, ”The goal of any method should be clear: fluency in English.

”We in the United States cherish our diversity and the local schools should be free — and should be encouraged — to foster the study of the languages and the heritages of their students in the courses they offer,” Bennett said.

”But the responsibility of the federal government must be to help ensure that local school districts succeed in teaching non-English speaking students English so that every American enjoys access to the opportunities of American society,” he said.

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