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Schools' program options widen without bilingual rule

School districts will have a freer hand to choose how they will help non-English speaking students ease into English as a result of the Reagan administration's withdrawal of proposed bilingual education rules.

Though still obligated under the Civil Rights Act and the 1974 Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols to find a way to meet the special needs of non-English speaking students, school administrators, and teachers generally applaud Washington's retreat from telling them precisely how to do it.

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Under the proposed rule, school districts would have been obliged to teach any group of 25 students or more in their native language until they could make the transition to English. Education Secretary Terrel Bell, in withdrawing the requirement, labeled it a harsh, inflexible, and "incredibly" costly proposal which had many critics and few supporters. Staunchest backers had been Hispanic groups which argued that the rule should have been even more stringent.

Secretary Bell has stressed that the decision does not signal a change of heart in Washington's endorsement of bilingual education. More than 500 school districts already have such programs and most are expected to remain in place.

The main impact of the decision will be to allow local districts more freedom to meet the language needs of non-English speaking students through such devices as magnet schools or more intensive English instruction. Just last month the Fairfax, Va., school system -- which has students enrolled who speak more than 40 languages -- received a Department of Education waiver, allowing the school to approach the problem with intensive English instruction.

"We're not quarreling with the concept of bilingual education -- just the mandating of that one approach," explains Joe Scherer of the American Association of School Administrators. "Civil rights are here to stay . . . but administrators want to keep their options open. They're the ones who are going to be held accountable."

A number of school officials, however, are concerned that Washington's action may be a prelude to a budget cut for bilingual education programs. The Department of Education last year disbursed about $167 million for various bilingual education programs under Title 7 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Heritage Foundation in particular has been urging cuts in that program.

"The impact on us would be much greater if the funds were cut," says Dr. Kenneth Berg, deputy superintendent of the St. Paul, Minn., school system. That district gets about $200,000 a year from Washington and spends half that much from its own funds on bilingual education classes, largely for Spanish-speaking youngsters whose families took the system to court a few years ago to get such a program.

St. Paul schools now have four times as many Southeast Asian as Hispanic students enrolled. The Asians receive intensive help in English at their parents' request. Berg says that practice is working well and that he does not believe the Washington regulations, even if these had taken effect, would have changed it.

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