The debate over the proposed regulations for bilingual education has become an unfortunate and misdirected public clash over the authority of local school boards versus that of Congress and the federal government. Local education agencies claim that the U.S. Department of Education has overstepped its authority by proposing to require a specific approach not proficient in English. The administration defends its proposal on the basis of its authority to ensure equal educational opportunity through enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Congress, meanwhile, is trying to sort out its responsibilities versus those of the executive branch to promulgate and approve regulations.

What has been lost in all these arguments is any real discussion of the problem these regulations were drafted to address: the fate of the millions of American children attending public schools who cannot read or write English well enough to function in their classrooms. There are at least 3.5 million such youngsters, the overwhelming majority of them born in this country.

The Supreme Court addressed the issue six years ago, declaring in Lau v. Nichols that when schools do not take affirmative steps to surmount the language barriers these students face, the schools are not providng equal educational opportunity. The court also said that the federal government has a right -- indeed, a responsibility -- to ferret out discrimination against these children through enforcement of the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Despite the legal mandate, the executive branch has been a reluctant partner in efforts to bring justice to these children. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare -- and now the Education Department -- has been under a court order for two years to issue regulations defining responsibilities of school districts in this area. The Office of Civil Rights, operating without any specific guidelines, has a mixed record of enforcing Title VI, negotiating plans of compliance that provide only minimal services to language-deficient students.

One need only look at the government's own statistics to prove the point. In New York City, for example, one of every two children who entered school 12 years ago not speaking English has now either dropped out or has fallen one or more years behind. In Los Angeles, the situation is even worse: three of every four have been similarly failed by the school system. The problem is not confined to big cities; it is nationwide. We know, for example that 40 percent of all Hispanic students whose main language is Spanish drop out of public schools before earning a high school diploma, some before completing junior high school.

When the Education Department set forth what can only be described as a "compromise proposal" last August, school officials only questioned the "authority" of the department -- and presumably the courts -- to require special help for these students. The department has proposed that the lowest-achieving, non-English-speaking students be taught English, and that they learn their other subjects in their strongest language (English or their native language) until they are proficient in English to keep pace with their classmates.

Almost immediately, opponents of the regulation cried, "We want local control of our schools. The federal government cannot dictate policies." That excuse is all too familiar. After the 1954 Brown decision, in which the Supreme Court found that segregation is unconstitutional, attempts by the federal government to implement the law were greeted with the same "local control" outcry. History tells us that local officials use the "authority" argument whenever they are fforced to do what they do not want to do: be responsive to the needs of minorities.

The children who are denied any real hope of full participation in the American mainstream because they are not taught the prevailing language are only a portion of the victims. This new racism is as invidious and destructive as the racial attitudes that have marred our history. It is directed against the new immigrants, whether they are Haitians, or Cubans or Cambodians, as well as Hispanics. If left to fester, it can spread like fire to all minorities at all levels of our society.

When this nation -- and the media -- begin to look at what is really at stake in our schools and our communities with respect to the millions of students who need and want to learn English, then we can begin a legitimate public debate on the details of the Education Department's proposal. But until our arguments are framed against the backdrop of what is legally required and morally right for non-English-speaking American children, let none of us be drawn into the "local control" non-issue by those who seek to obfuscate the reality that millions of our children are, today, the victims of in-school injustice.