WASHINGTON, Dec. 31—A decision yesterday by the Department of Education allowing a Virginia school district to provide instruction solely in English is viewed by education officials and organizations as significantly softening the department’s proposed requirements on bilingual education.

The action was hailed today by a spokesman for the National School Boards Association as a ”most refreshing” sign that the department was moving away from what it viewed as an inflexible enforcement approach and an insensitivity to local initiative and control over educational policy. Spokesmen for two Hispanic organizations said that the situation in this case was unusual and not applicable to other districts.

The ruling involves the large Fairfax County School District, which has a sizable number of students who speak little or no English. Education officials said the decision marked a change from the department’s position on bilingual education espoused in tentative regulations published in the Federal Register.

The proposed regulations, requiring school districts to provide special classes, in a student’s primary language, for those who knew little English, had drawn opposition in Congress. The impending change in Presidential administrations had raised further doubts about whether the requirements would be put into effect.

5-Year Legal Fight

The decision ends a five-year legal battle in which the Federal Government threatened to withhold as much as $18 million in funds to the Fairfax County School District unless it provided bilingual programs.

The department found that the district’s courses in English as a second language fully complied with the intent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids discrimination based on national origin. The department also found that students who took such classes were performing at a level comparable with those studying under a bilingual approach. The deparment had previously said that alternatives to the bilingual approach were insufficient.

A letter sent to the district officials from the department cited ”significant and considerable progress” in achievement test scores by students participating in the special classes. The $2 million Fairfax program is designed to aid an estimated 2,700 children who speak one of 50 different languages but little or no English.

Thomas Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association, said, ”For once, the attitude that the Federal Government knows best has been quashed, and we think that’s most refreshing.”

Spokesmen for two Hispanic groups cautioned against using the Fairfax case as a nationwide model. Raphael Valdivieso, director of the Aspira Center for Educational Equity in Washington, said that many of Fairfax County’s minority citizens were recent immigrants from families that were well-off financially and were highly motivated. Peter Roos, director of litigation for the MexicanAmerican Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the district’s student-teacher ratio in its special classes was extraordinarily low while annual expenditures for each student enrolled in the program exceeded $3,000.

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