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Illinois Board May Ease State Mandate

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Springfield, Ill--The state of Illinois should continue to require districts to offer special classes for non-English-speaking students in public schools, but the districts should have more flexibility in the instructional approaches they use, a study by the staff of the State Board of Education recommends.

The staff report--which also urges removing from state law a requirement that the history and culture of minority-language students also be taught--is part of an ongoing state-board effort to review mandates imposed on local districts.

Similar studies have previously recommended significant revisions to special-education mandates, elimination of the requirement for driver education, and substantial changes in directives concerning physical education.

State Superintendent of Education Donald G. Gill is preparing proposals, which will cover the entire range of state and federal mandates, for the board to consider in meetings next fall.

In the case of federal laws and regulations dictating specific state and local action, Illinois officials have indicated they will work through their Congressional delegation to enact any desired changes.

The new report also notes that states and local school districts have had greater latitude to deal with bilingual-education programs since 1980, when the U.S. Education Department withdrew proposed regulations that would have required districts with significant numbers of non-English-speaking students to offer teaching in their native languages. (See Education Week, May 5, 1982.)

Equal Educational Opportunity

The fundamental purpose of bilingual education is to provide equal educational opportunity, the staff report notes, and that goal probably could not be achieved without a legal requirement forcing local districts to provide some type of special program.

But, the report continues, the requirement should be broadened beyond current Illinois law--which requires such a program only at schools where 20 or more students share a common minority language--to embrace all such students regardless of the number at any one school.

However, it also recommends loosening present requirements to give local districts more options in meeting their obligations.

Specifically, the report advises that present Illinois statutes be amended to:

Eliminate the requirement that the history and culture of minority-language students be taught, but point out the desirability of including such content in programs for language-minority students.

Exclude any reference to specific methods of instruction.

Provide for local flexibility in ensuring the participation of parents and community organizations instead of mandating parents' advisory councils, as is now the case.

Under current law, Illinois schools that have 20 or more students who speak the same native language other than English must use the "transitional bilingual-education" method--that is, instruction in the students' native language--in order to receive state funds for their program.

According to the report, however, "Available research, although limited and questioned by some, indicates that no one approach has been shown to be most effective in all situations or even under particular circumstances.

"When and if such research provides conclusive evidence that one method is preferable over all others, it should be considered for requirement," it continues.

"Until such time, however, the law should exclude any reference to methodology and thus provide for local district flexibility in selecting instructional approaches to achieve transition."

Although the growth of bilingual programs in Illinois has prompted much controversy, particularly in the state legislature, the report as-serts that the programs are working.

"Documentation collected over the last several years, although limited, is decisive," the study concludes."Thousands of students have acquired the necessary skills and have been moved into the regular classroom."

The bilingual-mandate study now goes to the state board's policy and planning committee, which will hold public hearings on the report before passing along its own findings to Mr. Gill and other board members.

Special-interest groups seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the latest in the series of staff studies on mandates.

Oscar Weil, lobbyist for the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), said he had not yet reviewed the bilingual report. But he reiterated his organization's criticism of the earlier studies, which have split the education community along teacher-administration lines.

The IFT and the Illinois Education Association have opposed studies that urged ending or relaxing present requirements pertaining to special education, physical education, and driver education.

Representatives of administrators' groups and school-board organizations have applauded the thrust of those reports, suggesting that local educators can more effectively provide services in a less rigid regulatory environment.

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