BILINGUAL EDUCATION WILL be the busing of the '80s, predicts Marcelo R. Fernandez, head of the District of Columbia's Division of Bilingual Education. Acceptance of bilingual education in U.S. public schools "is going to be a long fight," he says, likely to stir as much bitter controversy and division as did transporting children across school boundary lines for racial balance in the '60s and '70s.

Some of that controversy is sure to be heard loudly and publicly during the next two months as the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights holds hearings on proposed new national guidelines for bilingual education (called the Lau Regulations), published last week in the federal register. Teaching Self-Respect and the Three Rs

Current programs differ, but basically bilingual education teaches non-English speaking children subjects as history and math in their native tongues while they also are learning English. In this way students with little or no proficiency in English in are supposed to keep pace academically. The use of a non-English language in American schools, how long instruction in that language should be continued, and how well bilingual education is doing its job are vigorously debated issues involving cultural and political as well as educational arguments.

Opponents of bilingual education complain there's no proof that children learn their academic subjects more easily when they are taught in their native languages, or that they learn English any more quickly or painlessly in bilingual programs. Opponents also say that bilingual eduation may help create linguistic separatism in this country. They point to Quebec's political strife as a warning. Supporters of bilingual education retort that many things done in the name of education aren't measurable, and reply that Quebec's history is completely different from ours. Then there are those who support preservation of numerous languages and cultures in America but ask why the federal government should pay for it. Advocates say that the job of public education is to transmit the current culture; and with a rapidly growing Hispanic and Indochinese population, they add, American culture includes languages other than English.

Fernandez believes that our "concept of the U.S. as a homogenous unit" makes it hard to accept official sanction (in the form of federal funds) for the use of any language but English in our schools. What's more, he says, the Vietnam war, our reliance on foreign oil, the Iranian hostage crisis, the prosperity of nations formerly dependent on this country, and tough economic times here at home may be creating a distrust of "outsiders."

"Some people feel that the foreign-born are somehow to blame for our problems and that any program that helps them somehow helps the enemy," says Dr. Josue Gonzelz, director of the U.S. Education Department's Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs (OBEMLA).

Although bilingual education affects hundreds of nationalities, it has become largely identified with Hispanic, currently receiving 80 percent of bilingual funds. According to the lastest figures available, about 12.1 million persons in the U.S. claim Spanish origins. And Hispanics are a comparatively young population, with a median age of 22; 13 percent are under 5 years old. By the end of this century the Hispanic population is projected to overtake the black population in numbers.

Bilingual education, says Ruben Bonilla, Jr., president of the Washington-based League of United Latin American Citizens, the country's oldes and largest Hispanic organization, is that group's number one educational priority for the '80s.

Many of the defenders of bilingual education say that it offers much in the way of self-confidence and feelings of self-worth to Spanish-speaking children. Gonzales, who grew up in the Southwest, recalls that he "was punished for speaking Spanish." Robert Lado, the son of Spanish parents and now a professor of linguistics at Georgetown Unuiversity, says he felt ostracized as a Spanish-speaking youngster in Tampa, Florida. "These children [in bilingual programs] feel they belong. I never felt that as a child," he adds. From Government Action to Curriculum

Bilingual education was launched in America on a national level in 1968 when Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act, encouraging and providing money for "bilingual education practices, techniques and methods" for children whose first language is not English. Then in 1974, the Supreme Court, in Lau v. Nichols, found San Francisco guilty of violating the Civil Rights Act by failing to ensure that Chinese-speaking students understood class instruction. This third significant development came the next year, when an HEW Office for Civil Rights task force drew up the "Lau Remedies," (to be replaced shortly by the Lau Regulations) which went farther than the Supreme Court by prescribing bilingual edcucation as the only means of teaching non-English-speaking children when they are enrolled in sufficient numbers, i.e., comprise 20 or more children in a school district.

Oyster School, at 29th and Calvert Streets NW, is the District of Columbia's only public bilingual elementary school. Oyster's program, which is supported solely with local funds, was drawn up before the 1974 decision. Says Fernandez: "We trained the teachers and handpicked the administrative staff. We set up a special master's program with American University, and Dr. Lado conducted parent workshops." From its opening, Frank Nealy has been principal of the school which serves black, white and Hispanic students. One of Oyster's major strengths, he believes, is that "a lot of schools see children who are different as a problem; we view them as an opportunity."

At Oyster, all children learn in both English and Spanish. Bilingual teaching teams instruct students in what Nealy calls "a solid, traditional gimmick-free curriculum." Is Oyster working?

"The model is successful," Fernandez says carefully, "if you consider that (1) many of the Spanish-speaking children move and aren't here for the full program; (2) bilingual teachers are no better than other teachers; and (3) the program doesn't cure poverty."

In the District there is also the Multicultural Bilingual High School at the Marie Reed Learning Center with two-year funding by the Labor Department. It is primarily a vocational program. According to director Maria Tukeva, most of the students, aged 16 to 21, have been in this country for several weeks to four years, and many have had little instruction in reading and writing even in their own languages. While some remedial Spanish is taught, Tukeva says the focus is on teaching the children English. "The kids feel this is their school; we quickly see a positive change in their attitudes."

The Spanish Development Center, a private but government-funded language-training institute on Kalorama Road, also offers a program for 50 low-income pre-schoolers where the children learn to read their native Spanish first, then English -- all before first grade.

But most bilingual programs in the area are piecemeal by comparison, even though the District of Columbia alone has almost 1,400 students not considered fluent in English in its public schools. Washington school children come from 108 countries and represent 80 languages; Spanish is the language of 52.6 percent of the non-English-speaking children.

Most schools deal with their diverse student bodies with special classes. At Hardy Middle School with 215 students including Amy Carter, Spanish-speaking children, and some English-speaking students, attend a class taught by Jose Martinez, the school's only bilingual instructor. Training the Teachers

One principal area of concern for school administrators faced with growing numbers of students who do not speak English is teacher training. Dr. Harold Chu, a former Korean community coordinator for Arlington County's schools, is new director of multicultural/bilingual education at George Mason University, one such teacher-preparation program, which trains bilingual instructors in Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese -- languages local schools need most. At Georgetown University a new PhD program has been launched in language and linguistics. "Our graduates get snapped up to run bilingual programs, rather than teach," says Dr. Lado, professor of linguistics at the university.

However, Dr. Jack Levy, Dr. Chu's predecessor at George Mason and now an education program specialist with OBEMLA, says the state of most bilingual teaching is still "rudimentary -- not much beyond the paraprofessional level."

The quality of teacher education has severely handicapped bilingual education, according to Esther Eisenhower, the French-born coordinator of Fairfax County's controversial English as a second language curriculum. (The county and the U.S. Department of Education have locked horns over Fairfax's method, which immerses E.S.L. students in English to bring them quickly up to national achievement averages. This is not bilingual/bicultural education, argues the department, and hence does not comply with the Lau Remedies.) Eisenhower, who speaks six languages and is working on a doctorate in second language acquisition at the University of Maryland, asks, "Why didn't the government identify three or four top universities and create teacher learning centers? Why hasn't federal money been used for intensive training or native Korean, Puerto Rican and Vietnamese teachers before letting them loose on the children?" Instead, she contends, "good-hearted housefraus are teaching the children . . . and just because people speak Spanish, they're teaching math." An Issue That's Here to Stay

Opponents and the press drum away at the lack of hard evidence that the technique works. A study done in 1977 by the American Institute for Research showed that two-thirds of the children accepted into bilingual programs already spoke English and that they progressed in English less quickly than children not in bilingual programs. Supporters have questioned the design of that study and prefer program by program evaluation.

"But not all of the negative findings can be easily dismissed," says Rudolph C. Troike director of the Center for Applied Linguistics.

As OBEMLA director Gonzalez says, he is trying to tighten quality control and empahsize training. A staff member for the Senate Appropriations Committee says the committee has been asked to approve a $25 million increase in OBEMLA's budget, a jump to $192 million for 1981.

OBEMLA provides what Gonzalez calls "seed money" for individual projects such as teacher and staff training, textbook development and formation of university degree programs. "We make grants for up to three years, during which we taper off our support as the local community increases its share," says Gonzalez.

Some communities undertake programs of their own. "Local school boards seem to want less control by the federal government," explains Bonilla, "even if it means losing federal funds."

Comnplete acceptance of bilingual education techniques may take 10 or 15 years, Fernandez thinks. "We have to show that bilingual education is not ghetto education, but the best method of education for everybody."

Ironically, advocates of bilingual education are looking to middle-class English-speaking students to support their cause. Even though bilingual programs are aimed at non-English speaking children, often from low income families, classes frequently include native English speaking students -- up to 40 percent of the slots in federally funded elementary school programs may be occupied by U.S. born children. Those children often become bilingual and their parents complain when they are switched to monolanguage secondary schools.

In the meantime, the issue continues to be identified almost solely with the Hispanic community. "It's all Hispanics have," says Fernandez, "so they rally 'round it."

Bonilla is impatient with arguments that bilingual education will cause separatism in the U.S. "There is already a separate colony . . . Its members are poor, economically deprived, with inadequate political representation and unemployment 30 percent above average."

The issues of bilingual education "won't go away," says Levy. "This country's demographcis won't let it go away."