FAIRFAX COUNTY'S first-in-the-nation triumph in gaining approval for an English-only program to help students who speak only a foreign language should not be held up as an exception. It is a model. Until now, the U.S. Department of Education has tried to require that all school districts use both English and the child's native language -- a bilingual program -- to help on-English-speaking students make the transition to American schools. Fairfax has shown that there is another way to handle the problem. For certain immigrant groups in certain numbers, progress can be made using English only; it is not necessary to teach children in two languages for some period of time.

This is not to say that Fairfax's prgram should supplant the bilingual approach, or that it is the perfect program for everyone everywhere. It might not be successful with different immigrants, a different size group or in a different part of the country. But every school district has the right to design its own plan to fit its own needs, as Fairfax did. To that extent, Fairfax is a good example, and the education department was right to approve its plan.

Critics see any shift from a hard-line government policy -- one that requires bilingual education -- as a move against their children. They want some guarantee that their children won't be left sitting in a class where they can't understand what is going on, that they won't be denied an education because their native language is not English.They claim the answer is a single bilignual program put into effect nationwide.

That is overkill. The federal government should protect the interests of children who don't speak English by insisting that special help be given to them.But one nationwide prgram is not the answer. The question varies with time, place and people. School districts all over the nation prove every day that reading, writing, arithmetic and many other subjects can be successfully taught in different ways without the federal government's pointing out the right way. The only prerequisite is that they make certain that thoughtless school officials don't ignore children who come to school unable to speak English.

In Fairfax, approximately $750 extra is spent on students who don't speak English as their native language. And by the looks of test results, both that money and the effort that goes with it are paying off. In other places, different programs may pay off, and those other school districts must have the right to try to do it their way.