President Reagan, seeking the political support of Hispanic American voters, today endorsed "effective bilingual programs" for Hispanic schoolchildren. But White House officials said no substantive changes in programs or new funds for bilingual education were planned by the administration.
Only two weeks after he took office, Reagan attempted to scrap regulations to require the use of foreign languages to teach children who do not speak English, and this year the president attempted to cut the funding for bilingual education from $138 million to $95 million.
But Reagan took a different approach in a speech today to 2,000 delegates at the annual convention of the American G.I. Forum, a Hispanic veterans group.
He promised that his administration is "moving" to "end the politicization of education and bring back excellence to our schools and better opportunity to our schoolchildren, including effective bilingual programs so important to Hispanic children."
"You could say he has a growing sensitivity on the issue based on the discussions he's had with Hispanics in recent weeks," a White House official said of Reagan's praise for bilingual education.
But Texas Gov. Mark White (D) charged that Reagan was engaging in "another of his quick-fix public relations campaigns."
Vice President Bush delivered an even stronger endorsement of bilingual education last week at a Hispanic voter registration conference in San Antonio. In remarks inserted at the last minute in his prepared text, Bush declared that "our president and this vice president remain firmly committed to bilingual education.
"Let me make this crystal clear," he added, "we are for bilingual education. Good bilingual programs make it possible to phase into the English-speaking mainstream. We are pledged to this end."
But Bush also acknowledged that "there is always a fight over funds," and that there have been disagreements over the "mechanics" of bilingual education.
The concept of bilingual education has been hotly contested for years. Supporters of the idea, including many Hispanic organizations and congressional Democrats, say that children who speak only Spanish when they enter school should be given a gradual transition into English, teaching them in both languages at first. Without such a gradual shift, advocates say, the Spanish-speaking student is at a disadvantage in the schoolroom.
Opponents of bilingual education programs, including some in the Reagan administration, have maintained that bilingual education programs only slow the process of assimilation into the English mainstream. Some opponents have also recalled that immigrant families of earlier generations that did not speak English made the transition into U.S. society without the help of special programs.
Less than two weeks after Reagan's inauguration in 1981, Secretary of Education T.H. Bell announced on Feb. 2 that he was scrapping regulations proposed by the Carter administration to require bilingual education.
Bell said he wanted to give school systems more flexibility to use other methods of enhancing the learning of non-English-speaking students if they chose, such as special instruction in English.
Shortly afterward, Reagan indicated in his budget message that grants to the schools for bilingual education programs would be blended into a block grant program instead of remaining as a separate targeted grant program.
After receiving protests, however, Bell revealed on Feb. 25, 1981, that the plan to submerge bilingual funding into a block grant would be scrapped and separate designated funds for bilingual education would be sought.
In a March 2, 1981, speech to the National League of Cities, the president said bilingual education "had been distorted at the federal level." He said it was useful when used to teach English to students who speak foreign languages at home. "But it is absolutely wrong and against American concepts to have a bilingual education program that is now openly, admittedly dedicated to preserving their native language and never getting them adequate in English so they can go out into the job market and participate."
In a meeting with a group of Hispanic leaders at his hotel here Friday night, Reagan was asked about the budget cuts in bilingual education, according to one White House official who was present.
He acknowledged the federal cuts, but claimed that state and local governments are spending more for bilingual education, the official said.