Whitten Resigning as Director Of Bilingual-Education Agency

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WASHINGTON--Citing gains for the Reagan Administration's policy agenda, Carol Pendas Whitten last week announced plans to resign as director of the Education Department's office of bilingual education and minority affairs, effective June 30. She has held the post since April 1985.

In her letter of resignation, Ms. Whitten praised Secretary of Education William J. Bennett for "your leadership in changing the public debate on bilingual education.''

"We have come far,'' she said, "as we have moved from discussions of the right of non-English speakers to be taught in their own language to the true purpose for bilingual education--that federal bilingual programs teach English, regardless of methodology, and provide the non-English speaker with the passport to success in America.''

"As you know, it has not been easy,'' she added, referring to the often-heated controversies of her tenure, which is generally regarded as the stormiest two years in the program's 19-year history.

Growing Polarization

It has been a time of growing polarization between the Administration and bilingual educators, as Ms. Whitten and Mr. Bennett campaigned to end funding preferences for native-language instruction, while seeking expanded support for "English only'' alternatives.

Two months ago in Denver, when Ms. Whitten addressed the annual meeting of the National Association for Bilingual Education, she faced sharp questioning about the department's claim that research findings remain inconclusive about the effectiveness of bilingual programs.

Several speakers charged that the Administration seeks to dismantle federal support for bilingual education, and when a fellow Cuban-American accused Ms. Whitten of "the crime of silence,'' she walked out, denouncing the group as "a political-action committee.''

"The unfortunate thing about this program,'' Ms. Whitten said in an interview last week, "is that when people can't attack you on the merits, they tend to get personal and attack your loyalty to the program.'' The Denver incident was "one of many'' such criticisms encountered in her travels on behalf of OBEMLA, she said.

Ms. Whitten said she had no immediate plans, other than "to be with my family, to do a little traveling.'' Asked whether she would consider returning to government, she expressed disinterest in a full-time position, or even a part-time job that would require substantial amounts of time away from her family.

A former Spanish and home-economics teacher in Miami, Ms. Whitten has served in a variety of political posts in the Education and Labor departments since 1981. As the daughter-in-law of Representative Jamie L. Whitten, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, she has generally enjoyed a cordial reception on Capitol Hill.

"I had always intended to leave, once we got legislation, and [now] we're clearly going to get flexibility,'' Ms. Whitten said, referring to bilingual-education bills approved this spring by the full House and by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. "I only hope it looks more like the Senate version than the House [bill].''

The Senate measure, S 1238, would raise the current "4 percent cap'' on funding for English-only programs to 25 percent of bilingual-education spending. HR 5, which passed the House on May 21, would protect current funding for bilingual instruction, while earmarking 75 percent of additional appropriations for alternative methodologies.

Secretary Bennett praised Ms. Whitten as "absolutely indispensable'' to the department's initiatives on bilingual education. "Under your leadership,'' he added, "the management of the office has improved dramatically.''

Allegations of contract irregularities had plagued Ms. Whitten's predecessor, Jesse Soriano, although an inspector general's investigation resulted in no formal charges.

Of her administrative accomplishments, Ms. Whitten said she is most proud of accelerating OBEMLA's schedule for awarding grants to school districts, which will total $99- million in 1987-88. Last year, because of delays in issuing new grant regulations, final decisions were postponed until mid-October, disrupting many districts' plans.

For the coming school year, all Title VII grant awards will be announced by the end of the month, Ms. Whitten said, except for those aiding programs of academic excellence and state-level programs.

Advocates' Reactions

Bilingual-education advocates expressed few regrets over Ms. Whitten's departure. They said they hoped her replacement would not only stress English proficiency, but also the program's other statutory goal: academic progress in other subjects through native-language instruction.

"I would hope that the next administrator would not demonstrate the contempt for local officials, classroom teachers, and parents that has been so evident in the operations of OBEMLA,'' said James J. Lyons, legislative counsel of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

Hai Tran, the organization's new president, said Ms. Whitten's resignation "provides the Reagan Administration with an opening to realign its policy with the needs of students today and the nation tomorrow. We hope the new director of OBEMLA will press for programs which will treat non-English languages as a resource to be developed and shared.''

"We look forward to working with a new director,'' said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza. "There's an opportunity to appoint somebody who's an educator and who has much more rapport with the players in bilingual education, somebody who understands what the research says and the implications of the research.''

Within the department, speculation on a successor centered on OBEMLA's deputy director, Anna Maria FariÀas. But Loye W. Miller, spokesman for Mr. Bennett, said, "No one has focused on [a replacement] at this point.''

Secretary Bennett will consult with the White House before making the appointment, Mr. Miller said, but, because the position requires no Senate confirmation, it could be filled quickly.

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