AUSTIN, Tex.—Despite an initial reaction of outrage, spokesmen for Hispanic organizations do not expect the Reagan administration’s decision to abandon regulations governing bilingual education to impede the expansion of bilingual programs in this country.
“The federal statement makes no real difference,” said Rosa Castro Feinberg, associate director of the National Origins Desegregation Assistance Center at the University of Miami.
“It’s business as usual,” she said, and school administrators tend to agree.
It’s not that the Hispanics feel differently now than they did Monday, when some called the decision “a disaster,” it’s just that they had political reasons for responding as they did. The reaction was prompted more by their fear that President Reagan will deal harshly with Hispanics on a wide range of issues rather than for the consequences for bilingual education.
The bilingual education movement is now so deeply embedded in the educational system in this country that Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell’s Monday announcement scrapping controversial regulations that would have required schools to teach students with English-language deficiencies in their native language will have little practical effect.
“It’s a setback only in the sense hat it’s creating confusion,” said Joel Gomez of the Washington-based National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.
At least 25 states have enacted bilingual education laws. In Texas, for example, all such students in kindergarten through third grade receive instruction in their native language (almost universally Spanish). School districts have the option of continuing the program through the fifth grade. And a federal judge ruled last month that the state must provide bilingual teachers. In California, the program now allows for such instruction up through 12th grade, if testing shows it is necessary.
Federal funding for bilingual education has increased from $123 million to a proposed $209 million in five years; universities have rapidly increased the number of teachers trained to teach bilingually, and the development of textbooks, evaluation tests and other materials has advanced dramatically.
Some proponents of bilingual education have praised Bell’s action, and the Texas Legislature’s Mexican-American Caucus on Tuesday decided to rewrite a harsh press release attacking Bell to emphasize that the decision in no way elimintated bilingual education. “We ought not to take that position and give credibility to people who think Ronald Reagan has cut out bilingual education,” said state Sen. Carlos Truan.
Robert Cruz, president of the California Bilingual Education Association, welcomed the chance to start fresh on federal regulations. “People started reacting negatively toward bilingual education because of the regulations, not whether it was doing any good for the children,” he said.
Calling many bilingual programs — even in California — inadequate, Cruz said the effect of Bell’s actions might be to make it easier to work out “amendable decisions” on how to expand bilingual education throughout the country.
“The negative consequences of headlines saying bilingual education had been scrapped gave false hopes to school districts who are not doing anything,” Cruz said.
Even Ruben Bonilla, head of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), who issued one of the sharpest statements opposing Bell’s action, acknowledged that his motives were largely political.
“Our purpose in coming back strong and vocal is to wake them (the Reagan administration) up to our existence,” he said in an interview. “If Dr. Bell demonstrates an openness, which he has not yet, there is still room for compromise and positive negotiation. Perhaps the regulations can be drafted in such a way to promote bilingual education without interfering unnecessarily in local matters.”
Peter Roos, director of education litigation for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), pointed to Bell’s statement that the action was not a retreat in the enforcement of a 1974 Supreme Court decision outlawing discrimination against schoolchildren who do not speak English.
“They intend to continue to enforce the law of the land,” Roos said. “If they honor that commitment, there will not be any substantial changes.”
Supporters of bilingual education also noted that it was Bell who, as commissioner of education, approved the guidelines implementing the Supreme Court’s 1974 Lau v. Nichols decision that established the criterion of obligatory bilingual education on a national level. And Reagan, as governor of California, signed the first bilingual bill in the state’s history.
MALDEF’s Roos said he still has reservations about the new Reagan administration, however. “It may turn out that our fears are unfounded, but given the suddenness of this action and the lack of consultation, I think we rightfully ought to be worried. If the federal government discontinues its interest in this area, we could see an erosion in state activity.”
LULAC’s Bonilla said he is less worried about states where there is a large Hispanic presence but rather “those jurisdictions where the Spanish community is less mobile, less organized politically and where there is an absence of state law.”