The U.S. Department of Education yesterday told Fairfax County it does not have to teach students in their native language -- the first time the department has accepted an all-English program to fulfill federal civil rights requirements.
The decision, which educators say has national implications, appears to move federal officials closer to the incoming Reagan administration's position on the controversial bilingual education issue. Reagan and his advisers have called for alternatives to federal rules that require school districts to provide special classes in foreign languages to students who do not speak English as their first language.
Yesterday's action also marks the end of a bitter five-year struggle between federal officials and the county that included federal threats to withhold up to $18 million in federal funds and promises of lawsuits by Fairfax and the State of Virginia.
In a letter to Fairfax school authorities yesterday, federal officials hailed recent strides in the county's $2 million program, which serves students who speak an estimated 50 different languages.
The letter said achievement-test scores of students in the program showed that they had made "consistent and significant progress" through intensive English classes, and concluded that the system's teaching methods were an acceptable alternative to federal requirements based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"We're just delighted that this thing, after all these years, has finally come to an end," said William J. Burkholder, deputy superintendent for support services, who worked with federal education officials to engineer the agreement.
Several national Hispanic groups have long fought for bilingual education, maintaining that it is essential to providing equal educational opportunities to low-income, Spanish-speaking youngsters. But Antonio J. Califa, a deputy assistant secretary of education for civil rights enforcement, said yesterday the department had decided that "Fairfax has shown that it can be done in other ways."
Students with limited proficiency in English "have been making significant strides in academic achievement under Fairfax's English as a Second Language program, often scoring above national norms after a relatively brief period," Califa said. "That's what counts, and that's why we've found them in compliance."
But Vilma Martinez, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, had a different view.
"We continue to advocate for understanding of instruction, and we believe the best quality program for Mexican Americans is bilingual education -- the use of the child's own language to teach the child English."
Yesterday's decision is expected to give fresh hope to other jurisdictions which, like Fairfax, have faced demands for multilingual education in dozens of languages, including Vietnamese, Spanish and Korean.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted last fall to challenge proposed federal regulations that would stiffen requirements for bilingual education at the local level. Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman also threatened to file suit to block imposition of the regulations, calling them an "unwarrranted intrusion" on states' rights.
Neither the county board nor Coleman went forward with the threatened suits, however, before Fairfax and federal education officials resolved their differences.
In evaluating the Fairfax program, federal officials applauded the county's allocation of approximately $750 per student for intensive English classes for an estimated 2,700 county youngsters who speak little or no English. That amount is in addition to the county's regular expenditure of $2,696 per pupil. It is estimated that approximately 6,000 Fairfax County students have a primary, or home, language other than English.
Based on results from several nationally recognized achievement tests, the Department of Education found that youngsters in the Fairfax program were doing well, generally scoring close to or above the 50th percentile, in science, social studies, mathematics and language arts.