WASHINGTON—Education Secretary T. H. Bell on Monday scrapped the Carter administration’s controversial bilingual education proposals that would have required the nation’s schools to teach youngsters in their native language.
“Nothing in the law or the Constitution annoints the Department of Education to be National School Teacher, National School Superintendent or National School Board,” Bell said in announcing that the proposed rules would be thrown out.
He said the rules proposed by his predecessor, Shirley M. Hufstedler, were “harsh, inflexible, burdensome, unworkable and incredibly costly.”
The rules Mrs. Hufstedler proposed last Aug. 5 never took effect because Congress blocked her from making them final.
The rules would have mandated that children with limited or no ability to speak English must be taught basic courses — such as reading, math and science — in their native language along with instruction in English.
Bell told reporters federal law specifically states the Education Department must not usurp state and local control of education. He criticized a portion of the proposed rules that would have forced schools to get special permission to deviate from the government-approved program for teaching English.
“That was like Henry Ford used to say about his Model T: ‘You can buy any color you want as long as it’s black,’ because that was the only color he produced,” Bell said.
He added, “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 said President Reagan is “in full support” of the decision to discard the proposed rules. Reagan promised during his campaign to abolish the year-old Education Department as unduly intrusive into state and local control of schools.
State school chiefs, the National School Board Association, the American Federation of Teachers and other school groups attacked Mrs. Hufstedler’s proposed rules last summer, saying they were an unprecedented attempt by Washington to tell local schools what to teach and how to do it.
By the Education Department’s own estimate, the rules would have added $176 million to $592 million to the annual cost of operating public schools.
Albert Shanker, American Federation of Teachers president, said last summer that the rules would be “an unmitigated disaster (that) threatens the fabric of American education.” Monday, he said welcomed Bell’s decision. “It will allow school districts to get on with the job of teaching children English without the federal government standing over their shoulder,” he said.
Under Mrs. Hufstedler, the education agency reported that more than 3.5 million children have limited English proficiency and that 70 percent are Hispanic.
The agency estimated that 1.3 million of them would score below 40 percent on standardized tests and thus qualify for the proposed bilingual instruction. The rules would have required schools to set up bilingual classes when it had 25 or more students from one language group within two grade levels. Where there were fewer than 25 such students, schools were to provide bilingual instruction through one central school, tape recordings or bilingual teachers serving several schools.
In December, the Carter administration ended a four-year dispute with Fairfax County, Va., and approved its $2 million program for teaching English as a second language, although that program would not strictly have met the proposed federal regulations.
Bell said that was a step in the right direction, but that the rules were still too inflexible. “The next thing you know, we’ll have one federally prescribed way to teach reading and writing,” he said. “I just think we’ve got to avoid that.”
He said school officials should not interpret his action to mean the department is abandoning civil rights enforcement. “No school administrator should misread this action as an invitation to discriminate against children who face language barriers,” he said. But he also said, “I would like to use this regulation, symbolic of many of the ills that have plagued the federal government and this fledgling department, to telegraph a message of change to the American people. We will produce fewer and more reasonable rules and provide a more civil service.”
Bell said the department will continue for the moment to use the guidelines issued by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s Office for Civil Rights in 1975.
But Bell said he will interpret those guidelines flexibly. The guidelines, which were never published as a regulation, call for bilingual and even bi-cultural instruction. They were developed after the Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that public schools must teach children who don’t speak English. But the court made no suggestions on how to do it.