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Bennett Names New Bilingual-Education Chief

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Washington--Jesse M. Soriano, the embattled director of the Education Department's office of bilingual-education and minority-languages affairs, has resigned.

He will be replaced by Carol Pendas Whitten, a former schoolteacher who has held three Education Department posts and is now a Congressional liaison at the Labor Department.

Mr. Soriano, whose resignation takes effect on April 21, was asked to step down by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, department officials said. Mr. Bennett's appointment of Ms. Whitten does not require Senate approval.

Department investigators are looking into allegations of abuses in obemla's contract- and grant-making under Mr. Soriano, sources confirmed. A department spokesman said that Mr. Soriano's departure was unrelated to the investigation, but resulted from Mr. Bennett's desire to bring in his own team.

obemla's main function is to improve the teaching of bilingual education through the awarding of grants to state and local educational agencies and the funding of research and training projects. Its budget this year is $173 million.

Ms. Whitten, a 39-year-old Cuban-American, is a native of New York City who holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Barry College in Miami.

She worked as a teacher and guidance counselor in Roman Catholic schools in the Miami Archdiocese and in other Miami private schools prior to joining the federal government in 1980. She is the daughter-in-law of Representative Jamie L. Whitten, the Mississippi Democrat who heads the House Appropriations Committee.

'Ideally Suited'

"With her wide-ranging background in the federal government and her first-hand experience teaching in a bilingual setting, I believe she is ideally suited to direct obemla," Mr. Bennett said.

Ms. Whitten, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba, said in an interview that she did not learn English until she began school, so that she is "sensitive" to the educational needs of minority-language students.

She said she is committed to providing "the most efficacious instruction" to enable minority-language students to learn English.

Spokesmen for bilingual-education interest groups last week de-clined to comment on the appointment, saying they did not yet know enough about Ms. Whitten or her background.

Government Experience

In the Education Department, she was a program specialist in the Women's Educational Equity Program from December 1980 to December 1981; an executive assistant from April 1982 to February 1983 to Edward A. Curran and Robert W. Sweet Jr., who each served as director of the National Institute of Education; and, from February 1983 to February 1984, a special assistant to Charles L. Heatherly, who was then deputy undersecretary for management. Both Mr. Sweet and Mr. Heatherly now work at the White House.

Ms. Whitten's work for Mr. Heatherly reportedly focused on the "nuts-and-bolts workings of the bureaucracy."

She also worked on the development of the controversial Hatch Amendment regulations, which give parents the right to limit their children's involvement in certain types of federally funded school programs--in particular, testing that elicits information about personal or religious values.

At the Labor Department, she has focused on job-training issues, experience that she said will make her more "sensitive to coordination and duplication [of programs] with the Labor Department."

Troubled Office

Ms. Whitten will be taking charge of an office buffeted in recent months by political criticism and allegations of contracting abuses.

The Education Department's inspector general--an independent watchdog that reports directly to the Secretary--is investigating allegations charging a variety of improprieties in obemla operations under Mr. Soriano's stewardship.

Mr. Soriano, who has headed the office since his appointment by former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell in 1981, has also been criticized by representatives of both ends of the political spectrum.

In a recent interview on the subject of the alleged violations within his office, Mr. Soriano described himself as a victim of rumor and innuendo stemming from disaffected liberals. At the same time, an Administration official said he was surprised Mr. Soriano had lasted as long as he had at the department because he was also opposed by conservatives, who claimed he was not sufficiently committed to their agenda.

The Administration's pressure for new approaches to bilingual education--such as the "immersion method"--has prompted strong criticism from advocates of transitional bilingual education.

Ms. Whitten declined to comment on specific policies, saying that she needs to review current data and literature.

Questionable Grant

Among the alleged obemla abuses reportedly under investigation is a prospective grant to the Loyola School in Miami, a private nonprofit institution owned by Carlos Benitez, a leading fundraiser for Republican political causes and candidates.

Versions of the grant--which8would total more than $1 million over five years and be used to train teachers of bilingual students in the uses of classroom computers--were rejected or shelved at least three times last year by other department officials, over Mr. Soriano's strong endorsements.

Although the award process for the Loyola grant departed from normal departmental procedures in several respects, former Acting Secretary of Education Gary L. Jones recommended on Jan. 28 that an emergency, noncompetitive $260,000 grant to Loyola be approved, upon Mr. Soriano's recommendation.

Last week, Mr. Soriano said progress in awarding the first year's allocation of $260,000 has been stalled because obemla has not received the allocation from the budget office. Official spokesmen for the department said the grant remains under consideration, but other agency sources said it has been blocked on technical grounds.

Ms. Whitten declined to comment on the allegations.

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