The state Education Department says it favors flexibility, but that wasn’t the case when it rejected Quincy’s request for a waiver to change the way it educates bilingual students.

No can do, said the state. Quincy must hire two Vietnamese-speaking teachers to meet the letter of the 1971 law, which requires that a bilingual teacher be used whenever the number of students who speak a single foreign language reaches 20.

The law should be changed. Quincy officials should enlist the help of Governor Weld and his new education czar, John Silber, to get it done as quickly as possible. Quincy has attracted a large number of foreign-speaking families in recent years and has a successful bilingual program that uses Cantonese-speaking teachers.

But, like other communities, Quincy is finding it hard to accommodate 36 languages represented in its schools. The waiver plan would have allowed Quincy schools to conduct “multilingual classes” for elementary school children using many native languages, teaching them English about half the day and then integrating them into regular classrooms.

The plan is reasonable. It grew out of practical considerations–the lack of bilingual teachers–and reflects changing attitudes toward bilingual education. The truth is, we’ve gone too far with nitpicking requirements that hamstring local school systems.

There is a national debate over how long students should be taught in their own language as well as English, and how effective bilingual education really is. There is nothing static in the field of education, and bilingual education programs designed more than 20 years ago should now be revisited. There’s more than one way to teach any subject.

When Quincy first proposed its plan a few months ago, state education officials seemed receptive. And parents of foreign-language speakers in the Quincy schools were supportive.

The governor has emphasized local control and flexibility in all kinds of programs. So why the holdup? If it is true that the law must be changed, then hit the books and get it changed. In the meantime, Quincy should not have to meet an unreasonable requirement.

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