THERE IS no doubt that there is a problem in some school districts in this country with the way children who do not speak English are helped (or not helped) to adjust to English-speaking schools. And there is no doubt that those problems multiply when some school officials take a callous attitude toward the problems of immigrant students who must fight to learn English while also fighting to learn algebra from a teacher who speaks only English. But the solution to that problem must be a locally devised remedy, not a nationwide prescription from Washington.
By requiring that the schools teach basic courses in other languages, the Education Department discourages alternatives solutions. For example, it may be that in the southwestern United States, the large regular flow of Spanish-speaking immigrants necessitates a school that teaches courses in both English and Spanish. But what of a Washington, D.C. school where it may be cheaper and more effective to offer students who speak only Spanish an intensive couse in English and then to integrate them into regular school classes taught in English? Or what about special schools for students who don’t speak English, schools where they can study in their native language as they undergo the transition from one language to another?
The point is that while the troubles of such students in American schools may represent a nationwide problem, the problem is one that varies widely in size and nature from one area of the country to another. There should not be any one compelled solution. Under the rule proposed by the Education Department, schools can get “waivers” exempting them from the federal requirement if they have some other method of helping students who do not speak English well enough to function in an English-speaking school. But the “waivers” system should not be for exceptions to the rule. It should be the rule.
The federal government has a role to play in the hot controversy over bilingual teaching. That role is to require that children who do not speak English not be ignored by insensitive local school officials and thus denied an education. But how the school district solves the problem should be the school district’s business. The federal government does not and should not ever seek to require that schools throughout the nation teach reading and writing in one way, and it should not require that students who don’t speak English be dealt with in any one way.
As the Supreme Court said in the 1974 case brought by Chinese-speaking students, who felt they were not being effectively helped to adjust to English- speaking schools, there is a national interest in ensuring that equal educational opportunities are provided to all children. But the court did not prescribe any one remedy for the problem. The Education Department should not try to do that now.