Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman yesterday criticized proposed federal rules on bilingual education for foreign-born students and warned the state may file suit to block them as an "unwarranted intrusion" on states' rights.

"Control of the schools has always been a local matter," said Coleman. "Yes, the civil rights movement was valid, but that doesn't mean the future of the country has to be decided in Washington."

If approved, the rules, released earlier this month by Education Secretary Shirley M. Hufstedler, would require that schools with a certain percentage of foreign-born students teach basic courses in their native language as well as English.

Federal officials have said authority for the proposed measures is based in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

They could have major impact on Arlington and Fairfax counties, which have rapidly growing numbers of students who speak Vietnamese, Spanish and Korean. More than 50 languages are spoken by students in both counties, and 15 percent of Arlington students are now foreign-born.

Coleman's comments came in a letter to Virginia Education Secretary J. Wade Gilley, who Coleman urged to testify against the rules in future public hearings scheduled in six cities, including New York.

Gilley has said the proposed regulations mean "that in addition to the more common languages such as French, German or Spanish, we might have to find teachers who could teach in Vietnamese or even Swahili."

Arlington in fact has a bilingual program for 50 Vietnamese and Spanish-speaking students, according to School Superintendent Larry Cuban. A similar program for Korean students was dropped recently due to lack of interest by Korean parents.

The proposed federal regulations are now under review in Arlington, Cuban said.

In neighboring Fairfax County, which has no bilingual program. Assistant School Superintendent Jacqueline Benson said officials favor retaining a local option on how best to teach foreign-born students.

"With 50 different languages and a country spread out over 405 square miles, we feel that the best way to do that is through (intensive English) courses," she said.

Bilingual education has been hotly debated since 1974, when the Supreme Court ruled that non-English-speaking students should have equal access to educational opportunities but did not specify how those opportunities should be made available.

While some educators argue for intensive English instruction, others, including the federal Education Department, have deemed "transitional" instruction in the native language and in English more effective.

Although the proposed federal regulations contain a waiver from the bilingual requirement if school systems can show that other teaching methods are effective. Coleman branded the measures "the first intrusion of a newly-established federal department."

The regulations, which do not require Congressional approval, would be enforced by delaying or withholding federal funds from recalcitrant school districts.

"They're saying that if you don't do it our way, we'll take away your funds," said Coleman who added that providing bilingual education would cost Virginia about $10 million in state funds.

The regulations "exceed the law," Coleman said in an interview yesterday. "What's gone wrong is that during the civil rights movement -- which was right -- states' right got a bad name."

But federal education officials disagree. "These regulations represent our best thinking at this point as to what the civil rights responsibilities of school districts are," said Education Department official Colleen O'Connor. "Our goal is to get kids proficient in English as fast as possible.

Asked to comment on Coleman's statements. O'Connor added, "It's a controversial issue, but then civil rights issues often are."