LOS ANGELES — Carol Weaver has been teaching in the Whittier schools southeast of here for nearly 20 years. Much of that time has been spent bringing dramatic arts to minority students. This school year, thrust for the first time into the bilingual-education experiment that has gained a grip over many schools in this state, she threw out the script. Mrs. Weaver was assigned a number of “LEP kids” — students with “limited English proficiency.” They are designated for special assistance under the bilingual programs in vogue here and nationwide. Critics say if you have a Spanish surname and your verbal skills don’t show well on tests, it’s easy to get channeled into these programs and not so easy to get out. More than 580,000 California students are in them — in one big district, Santa Ana, they are more than half the enrollment.

Most of the instruction in the commonly prescribed “transitional” bilingual program is done in the student’s native language. The philosophy is that the child thus can keep pace with English-speaking peers while mastering the new language.

In her eighth-grade language-arts class, which under a relatively flexible district policy she teaches in English, Mrs. Weaver found that the elementary nature of the materials for the LEP students and the stigma of the designation were affecting their self-esteem.

“The first three months, I had to go to work on their egos,” she recalled. She exchanged part of her class with another teacher’s to integrate the LEP students better, and with a few hundred dollars of her own rounded up copies of Poe, Steinbeck and Ray Bradbury for them to read, along with several periodicals. Mrs. Weaver found that though districts receive special grants for their LEP students (an incentive for increasing their number), she couldn’t use the money for material that would challenge them.

Mrs. Weaver’s disillusionment with the bilingual program — for which she and some other detractors once had high hopes — has brought her into contact with a group called U.S. English. That organization, started five years ago with the intent of sparing the nation the sort of language divisions that have brought strife elsewhere, held a national membership meeting here over a weekend this month. A third of the 150 people attending were disgruntled teachers such as Mrs. Weaver.

The size of the gathering, and the scant national press U.S. English gets, can be deceiving. Its direct-mail drives have netted 350,000 contributors. The group has spearheaded two successful California ballot measures to make English the official language. The second, for a state constitutional amendment in 1986, drew the second-highest number of signatures ever for an initiative, and passed with 73% of the vote. (English is “official” in 13 other states; Florida and Colorado may vote to join this list this fall.)

As yet, making English official has had mostly symbolic effect, though the political impact of its popularity is being felt in a number of areas. Bilingual education is one of the most sensitive of these.

Mrs. Weaver and colleagues attending the U.S. English gathering believe the approach that has been institutionalized for teaching Hispanics with limited English skills (and Asian immigrants in a few areas) is failing those students. They believe the experiment would have been discarded but for the fact it developed a base of support that profits not only personally but politically. The politics of the situation draws these teachers to the U.S. English platform of fighting cultural separatism to maintain a common language.

The tenor of U.S. English’s meeting was idealistic (attendees sported buttons that read: “English: The Door to Opportunity”), but in its direct-mail appeals the gloves come off: “English is threatened in America . . . by aggressive and powerful ethnic group leaders who are financed in large part by our federal government.” To the frustrated teachers who spoke out here, that seems close to the mark.

They described a reign of intimidation and manipulation in urban California school districts to squelch teacher discretion and bamboozle Spanish-speaking and sometimes illiterate parents into sending off their children into a bilingual maw.

Though “transitional” classes are designed to bring students into the mainstream in a couple of years, critics say that it’s more likely four to six years, and that by then the student may have missed so much in normal language development that he never gets in step.

The teachers complained that only at a local level could they get sympathy from their union. The huge National Education Association, for example, is aligned with the bilingual lobby, itself a combine of statehouse enthusiasts, school-district program administrators, teacher-training staffs at feeder colleges, producers of classroom materials, and some Mexican-American spokesmen.

This establishment took hold within a few years after passage of the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, which together with a 1974 Supreme Court interpretation of the Civil Rights Act required some kind of special help. Most of the teachers who are griping say they don’t disagree with the premise that students of a non-English background should be aided to bring them up to par with schoolmates whose first language is English.

These teachers complain they are branded “racists” for backing an “immersion” method instead — one that puts a priority on making the child conversant in English. The transitional-bilingual lobby has resisted that idea, saying it would return limited-English-speakers to the “sink or swim” days of pre-1968. In fact, it has opposed most efforts to try something that might work better than the method now imposed. No federal funds were even permitted to be spent on alternative approaches until the Reagan administration early on got 4% opened up for that. Under the education bill the president signed yesterday, that will rise to 25%.

So the bilingual wall is cracking in Washington. But most money for this, as with other schooling, comes from the state capitals. The lobby is strong there. Thus it was a stunning defeat last year when Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed an extension of California’s bilingual guidelines and — barring judicial or legislative override — threw open to local districts the option of how to teach these students. But the two biggest districts in the state, Los Angeles and San Francisco remain under the spell of the bilingual lobby.

Teachers there have now formed a counter-pressure group, LEAD, “dedicated to the right of all children to learn English.” The Los Angeles district’s Mexican-American Education Commission has responded that “the concern of this group is not the children, but jobs for some credentialed teachers who repeatedly refuse to admit that their services are limited and therefore ineffective.”

True, the teachers who showed up at the U.S. English event — most of whom were white (some were black and others, like Mrs. Weaver, at least part Hispanic) — are in a sense fighting a battle for pay and prerogatives. As the mix of student bodies changes and aggressive “bilingual coordinators” register more “LEP kids,” the old-line teachers are being displaced from desired assignments and/or forced to sign “waivers” promising to attend up to seven years of classes at their own time and expense to learn Spanish. But they sound just as committed to the non-English-speaking children as the bilingualists do. And certainly by standing up they’re paying a short-run price.

The bilingual debate can be muddied by studies, as well as motives. A lot of grant money has gone to researchers, but it is difficult to prove whether the failure rate among non-English-speakers is lower now than it was before 1968. Both sides say they can show their instructional method is a bigger help. Both also make conflicting claims about the desires of parents, which ought to be central to deciding this. The best way to gauge those would be to afford competition among schools using different approaches. In this respect, it is interesting that groups constituting the bilingual lobby tend to fervently oppose such choice.

Why is the schooling establishment so resistant to trying something that might work better? The bilingual lobby says the forces of reaction would try to return to an “English only” environment that has no future in a shrinking world. Its critics see the current requirements as a jobs program for foreign-language speakers — such as the bilingual aides now commonplace in the classrooms.

To hear it put in the U.S. English context, bilingual ed, with its tendency to maintain the student in his native language, fits into a broader movement to foster language schisms in this country in the name of “pluralism.”

Mrs. Weaver, the Whittier teacher who says she now has her “LEP kids” participating in class instead of hanging around in the back, puts it more simply: “Are they going to be the future custodians of America? Or are they going to want to go to school and want to learn?”

Mr. Ferguson is the Journal’s editorial-features editor.

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