The goal, Secretary of Education Terrel Bell explained last week, was “to telegraph a message of change to the American people.” Bell’s zinging telegram: his department is withdrawing the regulations proposed last August requiring public schools to give bilingual instruction to children deficient in English. Bell, who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education under Gerald Ford, called the regulations an unwarranted Federal Government “intrusion on state and local responsibility.” And he went beyond that to offer a blistering attack on the regulations as a symbol of the bloated Federal Government. The rules, he concluded, were “harsh, inflexible, burdensome, unworkable and incredibly costly.”

There are now more than 3.5 million schoolchildren in the nation whose native language is not English. About 10% of them participate in federally supported bilingual programs at a current cost to the Treasury of $167 million a year. These programs, fashioned by local school districts, are not affected by Bell’s ruling. But many school districts prefer intensive instruction in English as a second language to bilingual education, and they strongly objected to the proposed bilingual requirement.

Bell’s declaration does ensure that in the future school districts will be able to choose just how to overcome English language deficiencies. Schools that use federal funds have had to make at least some effort toward that end since 1974. At that time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Lau vs. Nichols, that attempts to breach language barriers are required by the equal opportunity provisions of the Civil Rights Act. Ironically, the regulations Bell rolled back were initially proposed by his predecessor, Shirley Hufstedler, to clear up confusion over 1975 guidelines that attempted to explain just what kind of special instruction the Lau case required. Until Bell can get around to redefining all that, the old, confusing 1975 guidelines will be in effect.

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