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7 Texas Districts Fight U.S. Audit Of Bilingual Plans

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Eileen White contributed to this report.

Dallas--Seven school districts in Texas have banded together to fight an Education Department (ED) audit criticizing their bilingual-education programs and seeking to have them return part of the federal bilingual funds they have received over the last several years.

The school districts, led by Dallas, have received help from the Texas Education Agency to coordinate their defense and represent them in a possible legal battle with federal officials over the audit results.

The Texas education department and the individual school districts--Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Edgewood, Edinburg, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, and Harlingen--have asked the state's U.S. Senators and Congressmen to request a Congressional hearing on the federal agency's auditing procedures, which they contend may be politically motivated.

Officials of the Dallas Independent School District have branded as ''ridiculous" and "ludicrous" the auditors' findings that the school districts' bilingual programs were unsuccessful.

Critical Shortage of Teachers

Linus Wright, the Dallas superintendent, charged that the "left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing" in the federal department. In essence, Mr. Wright said, the school districts have had the approval of state and federal program officials, as well as federal civil-rights officials, as they have tried to operate bilingual-education programs in a state faced with a critical shortage of bilingual teachers and a growing number of non-English-speaking children.

Suddenly last year, he said, the auditors looked at the school districts' records and demanded repayment of funds because the districts did not meet the original goals set out in their applications for the federal money.

Although the federal agency is required by law to audit recipients of federal education funds, Texas school officials have questioned the reason for the investigation of their state's bilingual programs. They, together with representatives of Hispanic or ganizations, have charged that the ED may be attempting, through audits of federal bilingual programs, to discredit bilingual education.

"It's akin to a witch hunt," said a bilingual-education advocate in Washington, D.C. "It's part of a three-pronged attack on bilingual education.

"First, the department compiled studies showing that bilingual education did not work. Then they proposed to merge bilingual education into a block grant and, when the Congress rejected that, they proposed to redefine bilingual education, so that school districts could use English-immersion programs instead of bilingual programs.

"The latest route--through audits--represents the third attempt to accomplish their objectives against bilingual education," said the advocate, who asked not to be identified.

The advocate was referring to six studies of bilingual education conducted by the ED last year, some of which concluded that bilingual education was not successful in raising the academic-achievement levels of non-English-speaking students. "Redefining" bilingual education refers to an ED legislative proposal to permit school systems to use federal funds to support a variety of approaches to educating students whose native language is not English.

Currently, federal funds received by school districts under the Bilingual Education Act of 1968--which is known as "Title VII"--may be used only to support programs that include instruction in a student's native language.

"It looks like a deliberate attempt to cut out the bilingual program, to scare the districts into not asking for bilingual funds," said William Kirby, the Texas deputy commissioner of education. "We think this is not the intent of Congress," he added.

John C. Yazurlo, the ED assistant inspector general for audits, insisted in an interview that the federal agency was not engaged in an attack on bilingual education.

"The inspector general's office is very independent of the rest of the department, and we decide on our own where we should audit," he said. "Based on our audit work last year in the state of Louisiana's bilingual-education programs, we decided bilingual education needed some more audit work, and that's what we're doing," he said.

The auditing office, Mr. Yazurlo said, currently is investigating bilingual programs throughout the states of California, New York, Louisiana, Colorado, and Washington. The result of the multi-state investigation will be made public in about a year. Texas was chosen as the first state for the wide-ranging audit "in part because there's a lot of federal bilingual-education money there," he said.

Angered and Confused

Texas officials say that they are angered and confused by the audit because their bilingual-education system, which they acknowledge is inadequate due to lack of funds and insufficient staff, has been the subject of a seven-year lawsuit originally brought by the federal government.

In 1970, the Justice Department filed suit against the state, alleging that black students were not afforded equal educational opportunity. The suit was joined in 1975 by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a Hispanic-rights group that successfully showed that students of Hispanic origin were being denied constitutionally guaranteed educational opportunities in part because of lan-guage barriers they faced in the classroom. At the time of the lawsuit, Texas provided bilingual-education funds only for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. But, in response to the suit, the state enacted a law last year that would provide state funds for bilingual education in kindergarten through 6th grade.

In spite of the new law, U.S. District Court Judge William Wayne Justice last year ordered Texas school districts to provide bilingual education for every Mexican-American child with limited English-speaking ability, in a sweeping program to be implemented over six years.

Under the plan, school districts would have to extend bilingual education to students in kindergarten through 12th grade by the 1986-87 school year.

The judge's order has been stayed on appeal by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. And the Justice Department, which originally supported the judge's ruling, has, under the Reagan Administration, modified its position.

In a brief filed with the Fifth Circuit, the Justice Department said that although its officials agreed that the Texas bilingual-education system was inadequate, "the state should be able to opt to deal with continuing remedial needs of students by such means as E.S.L. (English-as-a-second-language programs) rather than by continuing bilingual education."

The brief also said that the new Texas law "comes close to complying" with Judge Justice's order.

Mr. Wright, the Dallas superintendent, said his school district will appeal the audit findings to Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell because "we don't have any choice. In the first place, we don't have the money, and in the second, we implemented the programs with the De-partment of Education's knowledge and understanding. We have done everything possible under the circumstances with a shortage of bilingual teachers. We feel the district has made every effort to do everything we could and that we can document our case."

If the appeal by Texas educators, with the assistance of their Congressional delegation, is unsuccessful, Texas officials said they will bring the issue before a federal court.

The ED auditors, after an investigation last year, concluded in the audit report that "Dallas's Title VII grant of about $3.9 million has not effectively established or improved bilingual-education programs providing direct services to students, or successfully developed bilingual materials."

In the audit report, the federal investigators concluded that Dallas's five-year principal federal grant, which was completed in August 1981, "did not have the proposed impact on participating students." The school district's own annual evaluations showed that "the project did not successfully increase participating students' academic levels, and the project did not accomplish its main objective--to determine the most effective of two bilingual curriculum programs--as proposed," the auditors charged.

The auditors also criticized the way Dallas implemented another ed-funded program, one that purportedly used computers to provide bilingual instruction. That project "was not implemented as proposed," the report said, because most of the students were not provided with computer-assisted instruction and because the project used English-as-a-second-language, "which is not currently an acceptable program for funding under Title VII. Therefore, the project may have little usefulness as a national bilingual demonstration project," the auditors found.

A third grant, for developing $1.2-million-worth of instructional materials during a four-year period, was questioned because the materials "were not published or disseminated for use in programs of bilingual education." The report recognized that even after the audit was conducted, the federal agency gave Dallas another grant to establish and operate a national dissemination center for the instructional materials. "This may result in the publication of materials that are not needed and of poor quality and thus be of little benefit to programs of bilingual education," the report stated.

The audit report also criticized Dallas for its failure to coordinate the bilingual-education project effectively with other federally funded programs.

The report recommended that Dallas discontinue all three projects and refund the federal government approximately $1.3 million.

In a lengthy formal response to the audit findings, Dallas school officials said the auditors' conclusions, in general, were drawn on "erroneous and unacceptable" assumptions and contended that some of the most serious allegations border "on the limits of slander and libel."

'Extremely Instrumental'

The Dallas response claimed that the audit findings were incorrect and argued that the grants "have been extremely instrumental in establishing and improving bilingual-education programs in Dallas. Prior to Title VII grants, local monies budgeted for providing resources for limited-English-proficient students were for all practical purposes nonexistent. Currently, $1,987,014 of the local budget has been allocated for meeting the academic and linguistic needs" of those students.

The Dallas officials added that prior to receiving federal grants, Dallas had no certified bilingual-education teachers. Currently, more than 260 are employed by the district.

At the present time, 5,068 students attend bilingual-education classes in more than 50 schools in Dallas. An additional 6,796 students are receiving other services, such as English-as-a-second-language programs. A total of 126,000 students attend the Dallas schools.

Dallas and other school districts across Texas have had difficulty providing services to non-English-speaking students primarily because of the lack of qualified teachers. According to the state's estimates, almost 90,000 students, or 40 percent of the non-English-speaking students in kindergarten through the 12th grade in Texas, receive no bilingual instruction.

Dallas officials estimate that more than 2,000 students who would benefit from bilingual instruction do not receive it because of the shortage of bilingual-education teachers.

"It seems the auditors are making program decisions rather than money decisions," Mr. Wright said. "The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing, but it's not uncommon for auditors and program people in the Department of Education not to be in tune with each other. There is not anything logical in the approach the financial auditors have taken in regard to the bilingual audit."

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