Secretary of Education Bell, in revoking the bilingual education regulations proposed by his predecessor, appears to be assailing a dragon when in fact he is only flogging a dead horse. The regulations have already been mortally wounded by Congress. It has forbidden the department to put them into effect pending legislative debate – wake might be more accurate -in the spring.
Most of the controversy over bilingual education stems from a 1974 Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols, a case involving the rights of Chinese children in San Francisco public schools. The court held unanimously that special education must be provided for children whose primary language is not English; it did not require any special pedagogical approach.
But bilingual education’s most vocal supporters have favored programs under which non-English-speaking children continue to get much of their instruction in their native language until, in theory, they eventually become proficient in English. Critics of that approach have urged making those children fluent in English as rapidly as possible, by the best means avail-able. In fact the proposed regulations, now revoked by Secretary Bell, had moved a long way toward giving local schools a choice of the approach they deemed most practical, while still giving the department the final say in the matter.
Secretary Bell is acting under the Reagan Administration’s instructions to reduce Federal regulations. Politics aside, it makes sense to let the local districts work out which strategies are best suited to deal with their children’s language problems. Those problems, not to mention the languages they speak, differ from district to district.
Yet legitimate reliance on local initiatives does not relieve the Federal Government, or Secretary Bell, of responsibility. The Supreme Court has ruled that non-English-speaking children have a constitutional right to special assistance. Washington has an obligation to enforce that ruling, and to provide fiscal support for programs that respond to extraordinary linguistic disadvantage. In the current fiscal year, that support totals $175 million. Having buried the dead regulations, Mr. Bell still faces a live problem.