Chalk Up One for The English Tongue

A Carter administration decision excusing a Virginia school district from a requirement that pupils be taught in their own language may signal a retreat from federal efforts to impose bilingual instruction in U.S. schools.

Until the December 31 action, schools were required by both court decree and Department of Education regulations to teach their curriculum in the native languages of students who have limited proficiency in English.

Federal officials, however, exempted schools in Fairfax County, Va.–a suburb of Washington, D.C.–on the basis that they had shown substantial progress in teaching such pupils through the use of intensive English instruction. Of its 128,000 students, Fairfax County has nearly 3,000 pupils who speak dozens of other languages but no English.

Education groups, lined up solidly against the federal bilingual mandate, praised the decision and predicted that it would have an effect on classrooms across the nation.

”School boards have complied with civil-rights laws dealing with race, sex and physical handicaps,” said a spokesman for the National School Boards Association. ”We felt the bilingual rules dictated too closely what goes on in the classroom, and that is not what the Department of Education was supposed to do.”

Other educators have complained that the cost of training teachers in bilingual instruction was too expensive for most school districts–as much as $750 per pupil in Fairfax County.

In addition, many critics contend that bilingual education runs against American traditions of rapidly assimilating non-English-speaking immigrants and refugees into American life by encouraging them to learn English as rapidly as possible.

Proponents, however, are not giving up. They say that they will continue to press for bilingual programs, particularly in schools with heavy concentrations of foreign students.

Said Vilma Martinez, president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund: ”We continue to believe the best quality program for Mexican-Americans is bilingual education–the use of the child’s own language to teach the child English.”

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