FEW POLITICAL issues are more likely to affect life in America 30 and 40 years from now than what is usually called "bilingual education"-- the question of how and in what language our schools should teach children whose first language is not English. Historically, American schools have done a good job of teaching children to use English, the language in which, after all, most business and public affairs in this country are conducted. In the past decade, out of compassion for the genuine difficulties faced by children in English-speaking schools who speak different languages, experiments have been made with several kinds of bilingual education. These experiments have shown the utility of different approaches for different kinds of kids. For this reason there is much to be said for both those local school districts that have worked out special programs and for the Reagan administration, which has rejected proposals to require a single approach in schools all over the country.

Unfortunately, this restrictive kind of approach has now been adopted by the state board of education in California. Over 1 million children in California come from homes where English is not the first language -- 23 percent of such children in the nation. California decided that children educated in languages other than English will not be allowed to leave these "bilingual" programs unless they score above the 36th percentile on tests of "English language arts, reading, writing and mathematics." This sounds innocuous enough. But testing specialists note that although 36 percent of children taking any single test will, by definition, fall below the 36th percentile on it, more than half of a group of children taking three tests will typically fail to score above the 36th percentile on at least one of the tests. Thus California's 36 percent solution is designed to keep most students in bilingual programs in those programs even when many of their test scores are very close to or in some cases above average.

Opponents charge that the intent is "to keep children speaking their primary language." That is not too surprising when you understand that one of the major lobbying forces behind the 36 percent solution is, in the words of one of the plan's supporters, "those who are implementing the program in the schools" -- in other words, people whose jobs depend on a continued high enrollment in bilingual programs.

There is good reason to believe, however, that despite heavy Hispanic and Asian migration to California, our largest state is not developing a set of permanent enclaves where English is not understood and only other languages are spoken. The 1980 Census figures show that both Hispanics and Asians are moving out and dispersing themselves in large numbers from ghetto-like areas to places like the San Fernando Valley and Orange County. Census figures also show that among the million-plus children age 5 to 17 who live in households where a language other than English is spoken, 81 percent live in households where adults say they speak English very well or well, and only 19 percent live in households where adults say they speak English not very well or not at all.

The schools, of course, have an obligation to provide special help to children who cannot absorb instruction in English. But they should have the leeway to decide which of the many approaches is appropriate in particular cases, and they should not hold children in bilingual programs when they could handle instruction in English. California's 36 percent solution works against both these goals. We hope California's board of education reconsiders and that other states do not follow the example it has set in adopting this program.