HOW DO YOU educate children whose native language is not English? There is no single answer. Children speaking different languages, with different degrees of proficiency, of different ages and in different communities, have different needs. As long ago as 1974, the Supreme Court said that school systems are obliged to provide special help to non-English-speaking students. It wisely refrained from specifying exactly how.

The federal bilingual program, passed in 1978, provides aid to school districts that want to set up bilingual education programs. Unfortunately, the law puts the school districts in a straitjacket by requiring that students be taught only in their native language. Advocates argue that this is the only way to avoid the disparagement of other languages and cultures. But a more flexible approach is required.

The Reagan administration has come up with constructive proposals for change. It wants the 1978 law revised to (1) authorize aid to school districts for a broad range of approaches; (2) direct funding to children whose usual language is not English; and (3) concentrate on getting schools to train teachers in different methods.

At the moment neither house of Congress seems to be moving forward on the administration’s proposals. That’s unfortunate. The authorization for the current law expires this year, and there is widespread agreement on changes that need to be made. The Senate education subcommittee, chaired by Robert Stafford (R-Vt.), held hearings last year; its House counterpart has not held any. This spring, long before the election year, would be a good time for both houses to act. There is room to quibble with details in the administration’s proposal; we would be reluctant to cut the $138 million currently budgeted. But these matters can be ironed out. The important thing here is to use the country’s experience with bilingual education and rewrite the basic legislation to allow more flexibility.

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