The Alexandria School Board voted unanimously last week to oppose a federal plan that would require schools to provide students whose first or best language is other than English with lessons in their primary language. Alexandria is the third Northern Virginia school district to oppose the transitional bilingual education plan, which has been proposed by the U.S. Department of Education.

In a letter addressed to the Education Department, the board advocated that school districts be allowed to determine for themselves how non-English speaking students should be taught.

"We feel it to be most unwise and in violation of . . . [federal laws] which prohibit the [education] department from establishing a national curriculum," the board letter stated.

The letter also noted that the program now used in Alexandria -- English as a Second Language (ESL) -- successfully meets the needs of students speaking 44 different languages and that the costs of implementing the proposed guidelines could severely affect other programs. To comply with the proposed regulations, board members said later, Alexandria schools would be required to hire additional teachers.

"Limited resources demand creativity on the party of local school districts in meeting the needs of all students," the letter stated. "This creativity will be stifled or eliminated by expensive and rigid mandated programs that have unproven results."

School board members also expressed doubts that the federal plan would meet the problem of helping a student adjust to a primarily English-speaking environment.

"I am not so sure that teaching kids for years in their own language would improve their mainstreaming," said board member Claudia Waller.

Currently, 572 students participate in the ESL program. Non-English speaking students take all courses in English. Part of each school day is spent in special English courses, and the remainder is spent in regular classroom instruction.

Locally and nationally, the proposed bilingual regulations have become highly controversial. Public hearings held in September in five cities were extended to two full days because more than 400 persons testified. As a consequence, Congress has decided to review the proposal and has halted Education Department action on the plan until June.

In addition to Alexandria, the Arlington and Fairfax schools also have challenged the measure. In Maryland, Montgomery and Prince George's school board members testified against the guidelines at a public hearing in New York City last month.