Cries of protest went up across the country last week in response to a proposed rule by the U.S. Department of Education that local school systems institute bilingual programs for non-English speaking students. School systems could lose federal funds if they fail follow the rule.
Secretary of Education Shirley F. Hufstedler had barely revealed the proposed regulations before educators began complaining that the department had overstepped its authority by telling local systems how to teach.
In Virginia, State Superintendent of Schools S. John Davis called the new regulations "educationally unssound" and said he is investigating legal action to block the proposed rules.
Locally, the area hardest hit by the proposed regulations would be Fairfax County. School officials there were conferring earlier this week on a response which they say will be made within the 65-day deadline for public comment.
Last year, Fairfax was the educational home to students speaking 56 languages -- from the 1,100 students who spoke Spanish and Korean to the one child who spoke Swahili.
Fairfax teaches non-English speaking students in a program called English as a Second Language (ESL). The program consists of intensive English training. While translators are available in special situations, only English is taught in the classes.
Esther Eisenhower, director of the Fairfax program, opposes forced bilingualism. Eisenhower points to a recnt survey which shows exceptionally high test scores and high student involvement in extra-curricular activities as evidence that ESL works.
I challenge the federal government, or anybody, to show me a program where children are learning more than in Fairfax County," Eisenhower said in a interview last month before the federal proposal was announced. "You cannot legislate a prototype of something that will work everywhere."
Critics of bilingual education claim that the major drawback is finding bilingual instructors who also are certified to teach general subjects such as math and science. They also argue that students in bilingual programs have a tendency to depend on their own language, and many are still illiterate in English when they finish high school.
Supporters of bilingualism claim it prevents foreign students from falling behind in regular subjects while they learn English. Serveral Hispanic groups favor bilingual education because they say it preserves the heritage of Spanish-speaking students.
The new regulations would require bilingual education for every group of 25 or more students speaking the same native tongue.
In Fairfax last year that would have meant programs in 13 languages: Arabic, Combodian, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai,Urdu (Pakistani) and Vietnamese.
The proposed regulation allows "waivers" if a school system can prove its methods is "effective."
Fairfax officials apparently are tryign to determine how much leeway the "waivers" rule allows them.
"If the new regualtions give us the freedom to do our own program -- fine," said Eisenhower."But we will, get the best education available."