You could criticize William Bennett, until a few weeks ago secretary of education. He favored several good programs, but he never put enough effort into abolishing his own department, as President Reagan had originally wanted. To be fair, Reagan himself caved in on the issue, apparently believing that Reaganism had cleansed the department of its waste and incompetence and of its penchant for imposing mediocrity on American schools.

But Bennett is looking like Aristotle next to his successor, Lauro F. Cavazos. The new secretary, vetted by George Bush, would likely stick around for at least the first few years of a Bush administration.

Cavazos’s major fault is that he favors bilingual education. “I am a very, very strong advocate of bilingual education,” he said just after taking office last week. “But my goal is to make the person as competent as quickly as possible in English.”

That is a worthy goal, but where has Cavazos been in recent years?

The bilingual idea is one that has been tried, but which has failed badly. It still exists only because government programs still funnel your tax dollars to it. Without the federal and state bucks flowing through the pipeline, almost all school districts would have ditched the program by now.

Bilingual schooling is a program of unexampled folly. For hundreds of years American immigrants and their children came to our shores and learned English the traditional way: They spoke it and read it whenever they could, in and out of class. The fastest and best way to learn how to live in a new culture is to learn its language first — what linguists call “total immersion,” hearing and

reading only that language.

Bilingual schooling works differently. It teaches some subjects in the student’s native language while gradually teaching him English.

This means he may never know how to do many things in English, even though the culture he will live and work in is based on English.

Bilingualism clearly hurts students. Indeed, many ethnic immigrants realize this and refuse to enlist their children in bilingual programs.

Immigrant students should certainly be taught their native cultures and languages. Indeed, American students born here should be required to take more foreign language and culture courses. One reason for the vast decline in American students’ standards is that they no longer experience the discipline, and the joy, of learning a new language.

All these truths were understood when American education was controlled by parents and local teachers. Now that state and national school bureaucrats, with such bizarre schemes as bilingual schooling, have seized control, we should not be surprised that standards have declined sharply. Lauro Cavazos, alas, seems unwittingly intent on pushing those standards yet lower.

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