WASHINGTON—The government suggested new regulations Tuesday which would guide school districts in offering bilingual education programs to pupils who lack proficiency in English.
In announcing the proposals, education Secretary Shirley M. Hufstedler described them as “setting broad parameters in order to meet the civil rights requirements of equal opportunity.”
“The object of the proposed rules is to teach the youngsters who are non-English proficient English as quickly as possible and to teach them other subjects in a language they can understand,” she said.
The regulations would set specific guidelines for determining who should participate and, for the first time, place a five-year limit on bilingual services. Participating teachers would be required to be fluent in English.
About 3.6 million school-aged children lack proficiency in English and about 70 percent of them are of Hispanic origin. Bilingual programs are now offered in around 70 languages.
Current federal spending on bilingual education is about $200 million. But some states with large limited-English-speaking populations offer their own programs.
The proposals represent the first time the federal government has offered regulations in this area. The current policy is embodied in a set of guidelines known as the “Lau remedies” which have never had the force of law.
These policies take their name from the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case, Lau v. Nichols, which interpreted the 1964 civil rights act as mandating bilingual programs. Mrs. Hufstedler, then a federal circuit court of appeals judge, wrote the dissenting opinion which the high court adopted and used as a basis for its ruling.
Mrs. Hufstedler said no cost estimate for the suggested revisions would be available until at least Friday.
But she warned that the changes could prove expensive to school districts which have not already begun to offer bilingual services.
“With respect to those school districts who have been out of compliance with the law, they, of course, will have to spend some money to come into compliance,” she told reporters.
“There will be some districts in which, I have no doubt, it will be very expensive because those districts have been out of compliance.”
Mrs. Hufstedler said the changes she was suggesting would not prove burdensome for school districts.
The proposals would require school districts to:
Identify the students needing to be served.
Assess the type of assistance needed by each student.
Provide the aid based on the level of English proficiency.
End it once the student learned English or was found to have some problem that interfered with gaining familiarity with the language. Five years would be the longest time the services could be offered for any pupil.
Jim Ward, director of research for the American Federation of Teachers, immediately criticized the proposals.
“They still have a very inflexible mandate on local school districts in the way they deal with children of limited English ability,” he complained.
“Our reading of the (Supreme Court’s) Lau decision said school districts may find a variety of ways to comply. The federal government is mandating bilingual education as the one and only method,” he added.
Ward said programs where English is taught as a second language are one option which he believes would be eliminated if the regulations are adopted.
The proposals will be open for public comment for 60 days before a final version is developed. Mrs. Hufstedler said the new rules might be in effect by the end of the year.
She said sanctions are available for districts which don’t comply. “If we do not have compliance, we can cut off federal funds,” she said.