THE END of federal requirements for bilingual education was long overdue. The final blow to the regulations, struck Monday by Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, gave a merciful death to both the regulations and the years of tangled debate over how to handle children who come to American schools speaking a foreign language. The debate was confused from the beginning because it was based on the idea that bilingual education is the best (make that "only") way for American schools to help children who speak foreign languages in their transition to English-speaking education. Without any proof of that hypothesis, the federal government went wild trying to force local school districts to adopt bilingual programs under the threat of a loss of federal grant money. Out of that adventure grew the tangled debate now ending, a debate that long ago lost its focus.

With Mr. Bell's cutoff of the regulations, however, the argument is once again in proper focus: do school districts have an obligation to give extra help to students who don't speak English? The answer to that is an unequivocal yes. And the federal government, in case of default of other authorities, must act to require school districts to help such children. The question of what kind of help is a secondary issue and one that requires a good deal of discretion at the local level. It varies with the number of children who have the problem in a school district, the native language the majority of the children bring to the schools and so forth.

The end of bilingual education regulations does not mean an end, unfortunately, to many local and state actions (or court orders) taken by school districts to comply with the federal drive for nationwide bilingual education. There are about 500 school districts operating bilingual programs as a result of the years of federal pressure to do so. In some of those school systems, other methods of helping foreign-speaking students to make the transition to English may work more effectively or more cheaply. In one of its last attempts to keep the bilingual regulations alive, the Department of Education acknowledged this principle in granting Fairfax County schools an exemption to the regulations. Fairfax has an effective program, which uses only English to help foreign-speaking students adjust to their schools.

Now school boards on both the state and local level will inevitably begin to review their bilingual programs in the absence of any federal orders. What must be protected in this process is the idea that some help should be provided to children who come to American schools speaking a foreign language. That is the center of the tangled, emotional argument Mr. Bell has begun to sort out.