When former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett used to make his policies known, the more outrageous his thinking, the louder he bullied the point.

Such was the case with bilingual education, which he believed detrimental to integrating non-English speaking children into American life. Bennett steered federal funding toward English-only programs and away from ones that included instruction in students’ native languages.

Good schools “do not neglect or deny differences in culture and background,” Bennett once said. “But they do not let such differences hinder the education of their children.”

With that cavalier attitude as background noise, no wonder it was difficult to hear Bennett’s successor, Lauro Cavazos, direct his department to shift its policy toward a sensitive acceptance of the need for bilingual education. The quiet switch is evident, however, in the hiring of Rita Esquivel, a former Southern California school administrator, to lead the Department of Education’s bilingual education efforts.

“The sink-or-swim days of learning English are over, and they must never be allowed to come back,” Cavazos said when he announced his choice of Esquivel to the National Association of Bilingual Education earlier this year.

Cavazos’ departure from Bennett’s misguided vision about how best to help foreign children learn in American schools is a hopeful sign not only for the children it will affect but also for the future of the nation as a whole. Children who are thrown into a xenophobic environment are at risk of having their most basic needs and feelings misunderstood, and their motivation quashed, from the beginning. Add to this classroom disadvantage other burdens, such as the poverty of migrant children, and the chances are grim for transforming these young lives into well-adjusted, productive citizens.

This switch from radical to moderate in the department’s attitude toward bilingual education is welcome. It is a mature approach to living in a multicultural society, unlike voter approval in Florida and other states of constitutional amendments making English the official language. Now Cavazos needs to back up this healthy position with funding for bilingual programs that do not ignore children’s native language skills.

Although Cavazos has refrained from shouting about his shift in policy, the words of Rita Esquivel to a Los Angeles Times reporter speak impressively: “Our agenda is that we want to be very open and inclusive of everyone.”

The rest of President Bush’s administration would do well to take a lesson from the Education Department.

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