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Flexibility Stressed In New Rules for Bilingual Classes

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Washington--Secretary of Education William J. Bennett last week proposed new bilingual-education regulations that enable school districts to decrease the amount of native-language instruction in their federally funded programs.

Mr. Bennett also announced that the Education Department will invite more than 400 school districts to renegotiate longstanding agreements governing their curricula for limited-English-proficient (lep) students. (See text on page 16.)

The actions follow by two months a policy speech in which Mr. Bennett sharply criticized the federal bilingual-education program for overemphasizing lep students' native language at the expense of teaching English.

The Democratic chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, called the planned regulatory changes "woefully misguided" and possibly illegal.

At a White House briefing last week for local bilingual-education officials and at a subsequent press conference, department spokesmen outlined three main objectives of the new rules, which were to be published in the Nov. 22 Federal Register:

To emphasize that school districts have significant leeway in the amount of native-language instruction in their transitional bilingual-education programs.

In transitional programs, lep students are taught basic skills in their native language while they learn English. Under the proposed rules, "the local educational agency, not the federal government, decides the amount of native-language instruction to be used, how to use it, and the duration of its use," said Mr. Bennett in a prepared statement.

Moving children from bilingual classes to regular educational programs quickly will be one of the department's criteria for rating grant applicants.

To press local authorities to develop locally funded programs and to regard federal bilingual money--authorized by Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965--as "seed money" and not an entitlement.

The rules "establish new requirements for school districts to demonstrate, as required by law, that they will build local capacity to finance bilingual-education programs without federal funds," according to Mr. Bennett.

To establish detailed criteria, as required by law, for increasing parental involvement in the development of districts' bilingual-education programs.

The regulations require parental consultation in the design, grant application, and method of instruction in bilingual programs. They also require districts to offer parents the option of withdrawing their children from bilingual programs.

Rules Termed 'Significant'

Undersecretary of Education Gary L. Bauer called the proposed new rules a "significant" step in reforming the federal bilingual-education program.

And although the $143-million federal program accounts for a relatively small share of the nation's educational expenditures for lep students, local and federal officials have said that Mr. Bennett's widely publicized initiative could have a broad impact on bilingual programs that are not federally supported.

In a Sept. 26 speech in New York City, Mr. Bennett said, "After 17 years of federal involvement and after $1.7 billion in federal funding, we have no evidence that the children we sought to help--that the children who deserve our help--have benefited."

In the speech, he called for renewed emphasis on English-language instruction for lep students and announced that he would ask the Congress to remove the requirement that only 4 percent of the current bilingual-education allocation can be used for "special alternative instructional programs" such as English as a second language and immersion.

Some local bilingual-education officials and other critics have expressed concern that the Secretary's initiative could signal to local policymakers that they may effectively decrease their commitment to lep students.

Kathy C. Escamilla, bilingual-education director for the Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District, who was invited here for the White House briefing, said in an interview, "I'd hate for our school board to hear that there's no research supporting bilingual education, because there is."

Department officials vigorously countered such statements. Mr. Bauer said that the Administration is strongly committed to bilingual education.

Focus on 'Flexibility'

Critics of Mr. Bennett's Sept. 26 address did not quarrel significantly with the regulations concerning parental involvement and the encouragement of locally funded programs, but they have continued to single out for criticism his emphasis on local flexibility in transitional programs.

The bilingual-education law that the Congress wrote last year prohibits the department from redefining transitional bilingual education, which mandates native-language instruction "to the extent necessary" for lep students to achieve "grade- promotion and graduation standards."

Unable to redefine bilingual education, as they had once considered doing, department officials will implement their policy shift by emphasizing local flexibility and establishing the criteria for making grants.

For example, those criteria, which were to be published with the regulations, give applicants credit for demonstrating that their lep students will "achieve English-language proficiency as quickly as possible." But there is no mention of the language on "grade promotion and graduation standards."

Mr. Lyons, who helped draft the law, said that the clause regarding ''grade-promotion and graduation standards" was intended to ensure that lep students get basic skills and English-language instruction.

O.C.R. Memo

On a second track, the department's office for civil rights has begun to identify the districts that have consent agreements with the federal government covering their bilingual-education programs.

Civil-rights experts and department officials said that there are at least 400 and possibly more than 500 districts with consent agreements.

Many of the agreements were negotiated following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1974 decision in Lau v. Nichols, in which the Court ruled that lep students are entitled under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to extra educational services.

Local officials and civil-rights experts have said that few districts are likely to accept the government's offer. It would be a tremendous administrative burden to re-tool entire programs, they said.

Comments on the regulations will be accepted for 60 days and may be addressed to: Carol Pendas Whitten, director of the office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs, ed, 300 7th St., S.W., Room 421, Washington, D.C. 20202.

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