Secretary of Education T.H. Bell said yesterday that school districts will no longer be held to civil rights agreements under which they teach English-deficient children in their native languages.
"They can revise them the agreements if they want to. They're free to file a request to amend them anytime they want," Bell said after a hearing in which he also endorsed loosening requirements of the separate bilingual education law.
Bell's pronouncements are consistent with the Reagan administration's intention to give local school boards flexibility in choosing how to teach students who have trouble with English. But Hispanic groups who favor bilingual instruction seem sure to view the statement as a further erosion of the government's commitment to helping their youth.
"The secretary's statements will give ammunition to opponents in states where bilingual education is already on very soft ground," said Arnold Torres, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
He noted that Colorado recently repealed its bilingual education law and cited California and Texas as states where such laws were passed only after federal government pressure.
A spokesman for the department's office for civil rights said there has been no rush by affected districts to revise the agreements, at least in part because their states require bilingual education. Several new agreements have been negotiated in the more flexible atmosphere of the last year.
Aid to English-deficient children has proceeded on two tracks for years. A Bilingual Education Act has funded programs for fewer than 300,000 of the estimated 3.6 million eligible children.
Bell testified yesterday that the law should be amended to allow English-intensive programs to be funded also. But he emphasized that the department would not fund just "any kind of half-baked plan." Hispanic groups have said they will oppose changes in the law.
More than 800,000 children are being taught in their native language because of agreements reached under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Rather than face possible loss of federal funding, about 500 school districts signed agreements with the office for civil rights that emphasized the use of bilingual instruction.
In 1975, as commissioner of education, Bell signed the so-called "Lau remedies," guidelines prescribing bilingual instruction. Written to satisfy a 1974 Supreme Court ruling that language minority students must be helped, they have remained in circulation but were not being enforced in new cases.
In February, 1981, Bell killed pending bilingual regulations designed to replace the guidelines, saying school officials should be able to use programs emphasizing intensive English instruction.
There has been a dispute within the department about whether to announce that the Lau agreements could be renegotiated. General Counsel Daniel Oliver argued that school officials should be informed, and Clarence Thomas, head of the office for civil rights, contended that an announcement would only cause controversy.
One department official familiar with the internal controversy said he is surprised at Bell's public statement that the agreements are open to revision. "Who needs the hassle?" he said, referring to the expected outcry from interest groups.