ONE BY ONE, the area's local governments are weighing in against the proposed federal rules on bilingual education. Alexandria was the most recent to do so. In a letter to the Department of Education, its school board urged the newest federal bureaucracy to drop its proposal and to let local school districts decide for themselves how best to educate non-English-speaking students.

That is good advice. It is much like the message being delivered by other school boards here and around the country. Most of them have told the department that the proposal to require them to provide bilingual courses if they have a substantial number of non-English-speaking students is educationally unwise and economically unfeasible.

The fight over bilingual education is emotional and highly political. In its narrow terms, it is a dispute over whether children for whom English is a second language should be taught other subjects in their native language while they are learning English or whether they should be immersed in English and brought into the regular curriculum as quickly as possible. In its broader terms, it is a dispute over whether the public schools should be used to preserve the language and culture of large minority groups.

Given this nation's long tradition of leaving matters of educational policy in the hands of state and local governments, the Department of Education should never have decided to resolve those disputes nationally. There is no single policy on bilingual education that has demonstrated its effectiveness sufficiently to deserve being adopted nationwide.

The only standard the Department of Education should insist be met is that a local district provide all its students with an equal opportunity to learn. Such a standard does not ignore the legitimate concern that the special needs of some non-English-speaking students are now being ignored. Instead, it focuses that concern where it belongs -- on the local school boards.

In some school districts, equal opportunity may best be provided through bilingual classes. In other districts, other techniques may work as well or better; the record of this area's schools indicates that non-English-speaking students can be integrated quickly and successfully into the regular curriculum without bilingual classes when school boards and teachers take the problem seriously.

The proper role for the federal government is to see that the goal is reached, not to prescribe the route that must be taken. If the Department of Education persists in trying to do otherwise, it will provoke an unnecessary showdown on Capitol Hill next year over what is essentially a matter for state and local governments.