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'New federalism' vs. bilingual education

It sounds very seductive. Turn over more than 40 federal programs to state and local governments and the programs will become ''more efficient'' and ''more responsive to the people.'' ''New federalism,'' says President Reagan, will give people more control over their lives.

Following that logic, under new federalism the large Hispanic population of a state like California could demand and expect to receive expanded services in a program such as bilingual education. Advocates of bilingual education in California, however, foresee a different scenario.

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''Local control is simply a buzzword for local oppression of minorities,'' says Robert Cervantes of the California Office of Bilingual-Bicultural Education. ''I don't think new federalism will work.''

Mr. Cervantes notes that historically it was due to the irresponsibility of local governments and resulting inequalities in educational services that the federal government was forced to intervene with legislation in the first place.

''I don't see any evidence of a change of heart on the local level to meet the needs of minorities now,'' adds Herman Sillas, legal counsel for the California Association of Bilingual Educators.

Central to the federal role in bilingual education has been Title VII of the Bilingual Education Act. Enacted in 1968, this law declared it to be United States policy to fund special programs for limited English-speakers in the schools. Under Title VII, districts with more than 5 percent non-English-speaking children have an obligation to provide a language program for these students.

In accordance with the Civil Rights Act, failure to comply with this and other Title VII regulations for setting up and operating bilingual programs means a school district cannot receive federal funding for bilingual education. That is the stick behind the carrot of Title VII aid.

As the Reagan administration moves to implement new federalism, Title VII funds will almost certainly be consolidated with federal money for other low priority programs such as adult education and education for the handicapped, Mr. Cervantes and others say. The state would then receive the combined monies in the form of a block grant, to divide up among the programs as it pleased, unen-cumbered by federal restrictions. Bilingual education programs would be competing for funds previously guaranteed to them. The protections for bilingual education under Title VII would be lost.

A glance at the state of bilingual education prior to the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 indicates that a loss of Title VII protections could be a giant step backward. Before 1968, there were only a handful of bilingual programs in the country. It was common practice in schools to segregate non-English-speaking students or assign them to classes for the mentally retarded on the basis of their English skills. Twenty-one states -- including states with a major Hispanic population, such as California, New York, and Texas -- had laws requiring English as the exclusive language of instruction in the public schools. In seven of these states, including Texas, a teacher would be subject to criminal penalties or lose his teaching license if he taught in a language other than English.

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With the passage of the Bilingual Education Act, itself a product of civil rights legislation in the mid-'60s, many states were forced to strike down English-only statutes and discontinue discriminatory practices in order to qualify for federal funds. Some enacted legislation specifically permitting bilingual education programs. Today the programs serve over 210,000 limited English-speaking students.

It is clear that bilingual education would fare better in some states under local control than in others. In California, for example, state legislation in bilingual education is more progressive than federal legislation, and there are points of contention between the two at the district level. The loss of federal protections under Title VII would therefore not signify a serious setback, and might even put an end to the disputes.

California, however, is an exception to the rule. Eight states still have English-only statutes on their books. Sixteen have no legislation on bilingual programs. And of the 27 states with statutes requiring some form of bilingual education, 24 clearly mandate a watered-down version of the programs, the ''rapid transition to English'' approach. Only four states -- California, Alaska , Louisiana and New Mexico -- permit continued instruction in native language literacy skills, which has proven to be the most successful method for teaching non-English-speaking children.

Under new federalism, the fate of bilingual education in states like Texas or Arizona, with weak statutes and a history of discriminatory laws and practices in their schools, does not look bright.

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