WASHINGTON—Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said Thursday that “knee-jerk” education groups unwilling to listen to new ideas have orchestrated the opposition to his plan to give tuition vouchers to poor families.
And in a separate attack, the department’s No. 2 official, Gary L. Bauer, accused Washington lobbyists of using “scare tactics” to rally opposition to Bennett’s call for more flexibility in his $139 million bilingual education program.
The Education Department unveiled proposed new bilingual education regulations stressing Bennett’s belief that school districts already enjoy discretion over how much instruction to give in a student’s native language, as opposed to intensive English classes.
Bennett, in a speech Sept. 26, said the federal bilingual aid program had been a failure, with “no evidence that the children whom we sought to help … have benefitted.”
Bauer said, “There has been a concerted effort by some to misrepresent the position of the secretary and his commitment to the bilingual education program. Some statements by Washington-based lobbyists appear to have as their goal the spreading of anxiety among parents and children.”
“This is … the politics of fear and exploitation, and it is reprehensible,” the undersecretary said. “We will not be deterred by such scare tactics.”
Bauer said the Education Department’s civil rights chief is sending school districts notices that they have the option of modifying their bilingual education programs. The Office for Civil Rights entered into agreements with more than 500 districts in the 1970s requiring them to offer classes in children’s native languages.
The proposed new rules, which will appear in Friday’s Federal Register and are up for public comment for 60 days, stress schools’ flexibility and the right of parents to decide for themselves whether to enroll their children in bilingual classes.
James J. Lyons, legislative counsel for the National Association for Bilingual Education, said the Reagan administration “wasn’t misunderstood. Their record is clear …. It is in opposition to bilingual education and it is to minimize federal support and responsibility for children who need special help if they are going to succeed in school.”
Bauer said, “No one wants to gut this program.”
Bennett held a news conference earlier with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Patrick Swindall, R-Ga., who introduced legislation to carry out the voucher plan Bennett unveiled last week.
Poor parents could take the vouchers worth an average of $600 a year to enroll their children in either private or public schools, including public schools outside their home district. It would be an alternative way of providing remediation under the two-decade-old, $3.7 billion Chapter 1 program.
The vouchers have been roundly criticized by teachers’ unions, school board groups and the nation’s chief state school officers.
“I’m tempted to say that the noise we’ve been hearing in Washington this last week is that of several dozen knees jerking at once, often in the service of bureaucratic self-protection,” said Bennett.
The voucher bill has drawn nine sponsors in the Senate and 32 in the House, all Republicans.
Swindall said vouchers were needed as an antidote to what he called the “socialized education” now provided by America’s public schools.
Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, said, “Let’s give our minority kids a chance. Let’s give our economically disadvantaged a chance, and let’s give them a choice.”