THIS YEAR THE federal government is spending $138 million to subsidize bilingual education programs in schools across the land. State and local governments are publishing ballots in Spanish and many other languages. Philadelphia and the state of Florida are offering civil service examinations in Spanish. There are only 11 states in which one needs to know English to take a driver's license test.

And increasingly, the question is being asked -- Why?

Critics say bilingual education programs -- originally sold as a way to help foreign language-speaking children make a transition to English -- have become an end in themselves. Behind the programs are bilingual education teachers (some with a shaky knowledge of English themselves) and cultural organizations with a vested interest in the ongoing bilingual school curricula financed by federal dollars.

There's even a National Bilingual Education Conference that draws hundreds of delegates from as far as our Pacific territories for national lobbying conferences in luxury hotels. The theme at the last meeting, in Washington, was "Bilingualism -- In The National Interest" -- a far cry from short-term, transitional programs in the schools.

Now a prestigious Twentieth Century Fund task force on education, headed by the University of Massachusetts' Robert Wood, asks what good all the bilingual education programs achieve. "Anyone living in the United States who is unable to speak English cannot fully participate in our society, its culture, its politics," says the panel. It recommends "that federal funds now going to bilingual programs be used to teach non-English-speaking children how to speak, read, and write English."

On a parallel track, the English language has finally acquired its own organized lobby. It's called U.S. English and it's open to all "who agree that English is and must remain the only official language of the people of the United States."

The proponents of "English first" have to know they're playing a dangerous game. All so easily, they can be labeled as racist, reactionary, xenophobic, anti-Hispanic.

But the leaders of U.S. English are hardly know-nothings. Their honorary leader is a semanticist of Oriental origin, himself an immigrant -- former Sen. S. I. Hayakawa from California, who proposed a constitutional amendment affirming English as the official language of the United States. And the president is Gerda Bikales, who learned four languages -- German, Yiddish, Flemish and French -- before she was finally taught English after her arrival in America at the age of 16 when her family fled Nazi-occupied Europe.

U.S. English, which so far operates on a shoestring at its offices at 1419 21st St. NW in Washington, is not against Americans' full mastery of foreign languages. One of the most intriguing things about the group is its requirement that its board members be masters of at least one foreign language.

But on putting English first in the schools, the group is adamant. "As a child," says Bikales, "I found language barriers could easily be overcome. Arriving in America without knowledge of English, I nevertheless learned it very fast. So did my friends among the immigrant students in my New York City high school."

And so can, she claims, immigrant children today.

Where bilingual issues reach red- hot Latin intensity is among those Hispanics who envision a large, independent Spanish-speaking nation within the American nation -- an American Qu,ebec, as it were. Asked about taxpayer-supported Spanish education, Miami Mayor Maurice Ferr,e is quoted in the May issue of Esquire as responding:

"We demand this because we recognize that culture is vitally important if we are going to be able to solve our problems." But Ferr,e -- who also boasts "you can go through your whole life without having to speak English at all" in today's Cuban-dominated Miami -- doesn't necessarily speak for all Hispanics.

"Middle-class ethnics romanticize public separateness and trivialize the dilemma of the socially disadvantaged," writes the Mexican-American novelist, Richard Rodriguez, author of "Hunger of Memory." "America is a place where you don't lose your culture -- you gain one."

The questions that remains for us all -- native English-speaking and modern-day immigrant alike -- are these:

* Why should ballots be printed in foreign languages when practically all political debate -- the very essence of responsible citizenship -- is conducted in English?

* Why should driver-license tests be given in foreign languages -- except for foreign visitors, or for a limited time -- when road signs, warnings and the voice of the traffic policeman are all in English?

* Why shouldn't bilingual education be limited -- as U.S. English recommends -- to "a program of short-term instruction that uses the child's home language to help him for the first few months"?

Any other choice consigns youngsters to segregated classrooms, to lifetimes of minimal of nonexistent English, outside the mainstream of American business and public life. It could be the ultimate racism.