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Reagan administration wants to change bilingual education. Bennett says current law fails to help most deserving kids, but critics disagree

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Secretary of Education William Bennett said Thursday that the Department of Education (DOE) will seek to allow local school districts more ``flexibility'' in the way they teach English to native language speaking students. In a speech before the Association for a Better New York, a business and civic group, the Secretary called the current method of bilingual education ``a failure.''

``After $1.7 billion of Federal funding, we have no evidence that the children whom we sought to help . . . have benefited,'' he said. ``Too many children have failed to become fluent in English.''

At a simultaneous press conference in Washington, Undersecretary of Education Gary Bauer said DOE ``would begin to move on two fronts'' in changing the current regulations, which require children to take classes in their native language until they achieve fluency in English.

In order to reach this goal they are given ``English as a Second Language'' training.

Bauer said the Department will work both to inform minority parents that ``they should have the final say-so in how best to school their children,'' and will vigorously ``oppose the idea that Washington should dictate how children are taught.''

``If El Paso and Phoenix want different teaching methods, they should be allowed to have them,'' Bauer says.

The Department will seek consensus on Capitol Hill this fall before submitting a bill later in the year.

Increased flexibility at the local level will result in such language programs as ``Structured Immersion,'' and ``English as a Second Language'' -- a much more English-intensive intruction, experts say, requiring children to pick the language up at a much faster pace.

Bauer told the Monitor that though critics will try to turn DOE's action into an anti-Hispanic or minority issue, ``We want to make clear in the strongest language possible our committment to language-minority children, and to bringing them into the economic mainstream.''

Because of the poor record of bilingual education in America, Bauer said, ``to not recommend changes would show we did not care.''

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