IN FEBRUARY, with much fanfare, the Reagan administration announced a major policy change, killing a set of proposed federal regulations that Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell called "harsh, inflexible, burdensome, unworkable and incredibly costly." Today, almost six months later, it turns out that federal policy has not changed a whit: The administration and the secretary are continuing to enforce a policy that is, if anything, more intrusive than the withdrawn regulations.

And to add to the irony, the policy they are enforcing was first established by Bell himself, when he was Gerald Ford's commissioner of education.

All this, of course, is not the impression Bell or the rest of the Reagan administration sought to convey when the secretary formally killed the proposed regulations requiring bilingual education for children who don't know English. Bell said in February that the rules' withdrawal was "intended to telegraph a message of change to the American people." Unfortunately, the message never arrived.

Nobody has seen it, for example, in the little Page, Ariz., school system, which before Bell's declaration had received an ultimatum from the Department of Education: Page had 150 days to revamp its bilingual classes for pupils with limited English ability or risk losing federal aid. When the Page superintendent asked about Bell's promised change, the department's response was refreshingly direct: Federal policy "remained unchanged by the Feb. 2, 1981 withdrawal of the proposed rules."

In other words, the policy which Bell approved in 1975 and which has been the chief instrument of federal meddling remains intact.

That is the real Reagan administration message, one also received, for example, in little Waxahachie, Tex. In that case, the Education Department held federal school aid for Waxachachie hostage until it forced a promise from the superintendent to provide limited-English students with "native language instruction in all required subject areas." Bell released the funds at the end of June only after the promise was extracted.

The intrusive policy which the Reagan administration has embraced has its origins in a 1974 Supreme Court ruling, Lau v. nichols, which required San Francisco schools to provide some kind of special assistance to Chinese-speaking students. It is hard to see how anybody can quarrel with that ruling or with the fact that many language minority children have been victims of neglect or abuse by school systems. The question is what kind of special assistance is to be provided.

The Justice Department had said that was up to the local school district. The Supreme Court agreed, saying: "Teaching English to the students of Chinese ancestry is one choice. Giving instruction to this group in Chinese is another. There may be others."

But the next year, then-commissioner Bell and HEW civil rights chief Martin Gerry signed a document known as the "Lau Remedies" -- which contradicted the Justice Department's promise and virtually overruled the Supreme Court. The "Lau Remedies" demand that most affected children be taught basic subjects in their native tongues, at least until they are "fully functional" in English. They also insist that schools provide "bicultural" instruction about the ethnic histories and cultures associated with the native languages -- an issue never raised by the Supreme Court ruling.

Once translated from their barbarous educationese, the "Lau Remedies" are breathtaking example of federal intrustion into local affairs.

They demand that school districts hire bilingual employes to follow students around, jotting down the language they speak at lunch, in the classroom, in hallways and at home.

They also insist that bilingual and bicultural instruction to be provided whenever 20 eligible students with a common language can be found anywhere in a school district; that means a city like Chicago has to provide instruction not merely in Spanish, the nation's most widely used language after English, but in 17 tongues ranging from Assyrian and Gujarti to Indic and Serbo-Croation.

Though styled as "guidelines," they are in fact the regulatory equivalent of off-budget spending -- hidden federal mandates enforced as if they were regulations. For example, the department has obtained from 500 of the largest school districts elaborate 70-page "remedial plans" describing precisely how the districts will live up to the "lau Remedies." And as Page and Waxahachie know, the "Lau Remedies" are used daily in less formal ways to move schools toward bilingual educationm under the threat of lost or delayed federal school aid.

Perhaps the worst thing about the extremism of the "Lau Remedies" is that it has spawned an equally extreme movement to bring back the "good old days" when kids who didn't know English had to sink or swim in school. Those were also the days when many Mexican American children with English language difficulties were assigned to classes for the mentally retarded, when others were punished for even speaking Spanish with their friends in school. We are still living with the consequences of those days; the proportion of Hispanic-American high school dropouts is twice that of Anglos and Asians and well above that of blacks and American Indians.

Bilingual aids and teachers have a role to play in curing these problems. Obviously, some children who don't know English will benefit from native-language help in math, so they don't fall behind while learning English. But no remedy can be based on the presumption that schools and teachers will go out of their way to hurt children if given half a chance.

Because they are based on such a presumption, the "Lau Remedies" could not withstand any serious national debate. Knowing this, the Ford administration simply never published them. It might have gotten away with this entirely if its civil rights enforcers hadn't picked a fight with Eskimo-run school districts in the Northwest Arctic over which Eskimo children needed special language help. The districts sued, winning a consent decree requiring publication of the bilingual regulatory policy.

By then, it was the new Education Department's problem. The rules it proposed actually sought to soften the most nonsensical aspects of Bell's "Lau Remedies." They would have eliminated any requirement for "bicultural" instruction. They would have abandoned the requirement to eavesdrop on student conversations. They would have removed the requirement of bilingual teachers for tiny language populations. They weren't perfect by any means, but they began the long-needed debate.

Bell choked off that debate in February in a remarkable display of political theater. "Next thing you know," he told reporters, "we'll have one federally prescribed way of teaching reading and writing." It sounded like Eve lecturing on the dangers of eating apples.

Bell set June as his target for new regulations, indicating they would "be pretty loose," that "you can use any method you want" so long as it isn't just "any haphazard approach" -- finally, back to the position of the Justice Department (and the Supreme Court) when it won the Lau case.

Well, it is past June, and Bell's new policy looks just like his old one -- enforcing the discredited "Lau Remedies" under the covers. The flexible new regulations are nowhere in sight.

In April, his department published a list of 74 regulations it would be adopting over the next several months.: No mention of the Lau regulations. In June, the department announced that it was reconsidering 23 "important" regulatory policies that may be too burdensome, covering such vital areas as library career training: Again, no sign that the "Lau Remedies" -- which continue to influence court decisions as well as to loom over school officials' heads -- will be reconsidered.

This pattern is deliberate, as shown by Bell's handling of the separate Bilingual Education Act, which excludes nonbilingual methods from federal funding. In February, after praising all-English alternatives to bilingual education, Bell was asked how he could then justify the Bilingual Education Act's exclusion of funding for such programs. "I can't justify that," he replied, adding: "I'd want to take a second look at that."

It evidently was not a very fruitful second look. Bell successfully fought to keep the bilingual law out of the Reagan administration's education grants consolidation plans, and he proposed nothing to reflect his professed belief that schools should use a variety of approaches -- all-English as well as bilingual -- to help language minority students.

Some states with heavy concentrations of language minority children have been moving in this direction -- Colorado, for example, where bilingual education has been an exceedingly sensitive political issue -- but not Washington. In Washington, the Reagan administration is serving up illusions while it continues down a dogmatically bilingual path.