Hispanics Seeking Proof of Support From President
Washington--President Reagan's recent statement in support of bilingual education has sparked a flurry of letter-writing by Hispanic leaders who are asking the President to provide evidence of that support.
The groups, who seek a meeting with the President, are demanding that he withdraw a pending bill that would alter current federal bilingual policy and that he restore funds for bilingual education, which have been cut by nearly one-third since he took office.
Mr. Reagan, in a speech to a Hispanic veterans' group in El Paso, Tex., on Aug. 13, said the Administration was "moving" to "end the politicizing of education and bring excellence back to our schools and better opportunities for our schoolchildren, including effective bilingual programs so important for Hispanic children."
One week earlier, Vice President George Bush told another group: "Let me make this crystal clear--we are for bilingual education."
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Although the statements were characterized by White House officials as consistent with current Administration policy, the Hispanic leaders said they were contradicted by the Administration's actions during the past two and a half years.
"Everything they've done before is against bilingual education," maintained James Lyons, general counsel to the National Association for Bilingual Education, one of the groups that has written to Administration officials.
Added John F. Jennings, counsel to the House Education and Labor Committee, which has jurisdiction over bilingual education: "Either the President is unaware of his own legislative program, or, for political purposes, he's leaving a false impression about his legislative program."
The Administration, in a move that was supported by some education groups, early in 1981 withdrew regulations developed by the Carter Administration that would have required native-language instruction for limited-English-proficient students.
In a July 30 speech that year, Mr. Reagan told the National Conference of State Legislatures that "while there's a need for bilingual education, it's absolutely wrongheaded to encourage and preserve native languages instead of teaching the language of our land. ..."
In addition, the Administration's initial budget proposal that year would have eliminated federal bilingual-education funds as a separate program, instead merging them into a block-grant package with other programs for needy students.
Although that plan was later dropped, the Administration since then has proposed budget cuts for the program each year. Its latest budget, which is pending before the Congress, calls for $94 million in the fiscal year 1984, less than half of the $191 million the program received in the fiscal year 1980.
The 1984 plan also includes a legislative proposal that has become the focus of the Hispanic groups' demands.
The bill, HR 2682, would change current federal bilingual policy in three ways. It would limit grants to school districts to five years, strengthening states' roles in monitoring districts' bilingual instruction. It would allow school districts to use any method of instruction they found to be effective, including now-prohibited instruction solely in English. And it would target federal funds on children who know little or no English, eliminating from the program children who might already be bilingual.
The bill is supported by some education groups, particularly the American Federation of Teachers and the National Association of State Boards of Education. Hispanic groups, however, characterize the proposal--along with the budget cuts--as a "watering down" of the federal commitment to bilingual education.
"It is a negative bill; it would take the 'bilingual' out of bilingual education," said Amalio Madueno, legislative consultant to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
'Extent' of Commitment
The defense fund and other groups contend that the Administration must withdraw the bill in order to demonstrate the "extent" of the President's commitment to bilingual education.
"We are concerned that he is solely seizing on the opportunity, using a lot of political rhetoric," said Julio Barretto Jr., a legislative assistant with the League of United Latin American Citizens, a group with 100,000 members.
Other Hispanic spokesmen said they interpreted the statements of the President and Vice President as vehicles for courting the Hispanic vote in the 1984 Presidential election. Because overwhelming support exists in the Hispanic community for bilingual education, according to one Hispanic leader, the Administration may be willing to moderate its past policies to gain Hispanic support.
Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, a coalition of 120 local groups, was one of a group of Hispanic leaders who met with Mr. Reagan before his El Paso address.
Mr. Reagan, he said, "indicated that his only concern with bilingual education was with programs containing no instruction in English."
And in talking with Presidential aides, Mr. Yzaguirre said, "the implication was that it was not simply a repackaging of the old policies, but also a shift and stronger support for bilingual education."
Mr. Yzaguirre, who is also co-chairman of the Hispanic Voter Registration Drive, said he presented Presidential aides with the results of attitude polls of Hispanic voters in San Antonio and Los Angeles, in which bilingual education was supported by more than 88 percent of those queried.
"We're very sure that the one issue that really unites all Hispanics is bilingual education," he said. "If [Republican leaders] are serious about making some inroads in the Hispanic vote, they are going to have to come up with something stronger in bilingual education."
Unavailable for Comment
Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell was unavailable for comment last week. Telephone calls to the Administration's liaison with the Hispanic community, Kathy Villalpando, were referred to the Education Department's bilingual-education office.
Jesse Soriano, director of the office, maintained that the President's recent statement "was very much in keeping with the proposed legislation."
"To date I've heard nothing that would indicate moving away from the legislation," he said.
Regarding support for bilingual education among Hispanics, Mr. Soriano maintained that "most Hispanic parents would tell you that the most important thing is for their children to become proficient in English."