WASHINGTON—A Hispanic civil rights leader says he fears the nation’s school districts may give short shrift to children who do not speak English in the wake of the Reagan administration’s decision to withdraw bilingual education rules.
The rules scrapped Monday would have required that children with limited or no ability to speak English be taught in their native language. They would be taught English as a second language.
For example, a Hispanic youngster whose parents speak Spanish at home would be taught such basic courses as math, science and reading in Spanish until he or she became proficient in English.
In announcing that the rules proposed by the Carter administration were being dropped, Secretary of Education T.H. Bell called them “harsh, inflexible, burdensome, unworkable and incredibly costly.” The rules were proposed last Aug. 5 but were frozen by Congress and never took effect.
“We will protect the rights of children who do not speak English well, but we will do so by permitting school districts to use any way that has proven to be successful,” Bell declared. “No school administrator should misread this action as an invitation to discriminate against children who face language barriers.”
Nonetheless, Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, said he was afraid the action would give school districts a free hand “to do as litte as they want to.”
“Bilingual education is the only really effective way to deal with linguistically different children,” he said, adding that intensive English courses work with adults but not children.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that public schools were obliged to provide special help to non-English speaking children, but it did not specify what form that help should take. The case, Lau vs. Nichols, involved a group of Chinese-speaking children excluded from San Francisco’s schools.
The Education Department said the discarded rules would have added as much as $1 billion to the costs of the nation’s public schools over five years, with an annual maintenance cost afterwards of between $72 million and $157 million.
The rules had come under widespread attack from school administrators and educators, who charged that they marked the first attempt by the federal government to tell schools how and what to teach.
The rules also stirred controversy over the role of the Education Department, which President Reagan has vowed to abolish.
Vilma Martinez, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles, said immersion in English may work for children from affluent areas who already are literate in their own language, but it will not work for poor, Spanish-speaking children “who have experienced nothing but despair and poor educational opportunities in these United States.”
Bell said he hopes to propose new, simplified rules by June. Meanwhile the department will fall back on less formal rules used by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare issued in 1975 — in response to the Supreme Court order — when Bell was U.S. commissioner of education.