Prince George's County school officials voted last week to mount a vigorous drive against federal efforts to bring bilingual education into their classrooms.
The fight centers on whether the county's 1,100 students whose native languages are other than English will be taught primarily in English, as they are now, or in their native tongues. Prince George's school officials said they consider the proposed rules to be an unprecedented intrusion into the rights of local schools. Similar opposition appears to be building for what may become a nationwide fight against the guidelines.
"This is a very strong attempt by the newly created federal Department of Education to dictate instructional programs," said George E. McKenney, director of federal programs for the county schools.
On Aug. 5, the Department of Education issued proposed rules which would require the nation's school systems to provide students with instruction in the language that they know the best. The proposed rules will be discussed this month during a nationwide series of Department of Education hearings.
In an emotional climax to their first regular meeting of the new school year, the Prince George's board unanimously two emergency measures. One directed school superintendent Edward J. Feeney to seek modification of the new federal guidelines, the other to send board member Susan Bieniasz to represent the county at the first of the regional hearings in New York next week.
"I, as superintendent, am unutterably opposed to (the rules)," 'feeney told the board.
"this sets up a federal precedent of dictating educational policy," said Bieniasz, who has made opposition to bilingual education a personal interest.
The county's present program for students whose native language is not English -- English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) -- teaches the students most subjects in English. Separate classes are provided to teach the English language itself, as are special counseling services.
In contrast, bilingual programs teach children most classes in their native languages during a period of "transition," while they are learning English.
Prince Geores County's foreign students come from 87 different countries and speak 60 different languages and the new rules could cause massive problems, according to McKenney.
"We honestly don't know at this time how it would financially affect Prince George's County," he said. "We do know that if we need teachers we would have a very hard time finding them," he added.
School officials say ESOL is a proven success and that the effectiveness of the "transitional bilingual" approach called for by the federal government is a matter of debate in educational circles.
"Our philosophy in Prince George's County is that as soon as possible we want to make these kids able to function in our society, which is an English (-speaking) society," said school board legislative officer Judy Sheehan.
Board member Chester E. Whiting charged that the National Education ASSOCIATION (NEA), the nation's largest teachers organizaation and a backer of the federal education department, was flexing its political muscles. The NEA is a key supporter of President Carter's fight for reelection.
Last Friday, Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman criticized the new rules as "an unwarranted intrusion on states rights," and threatened to file suit against the federal department of education.
Board member Bieniasz said she was not sure whether Prince George's should move to take legal action but added: "I'd be interested in looking into it."