STUDENTS in the public schools of Fairfax County speak 70 different languages, among them Spanish, other more or less familiar European tongues and, most recently, the less familiar dialects of the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and East Asia. School officials need federal help -- and money -- to teach children whose first language is a foreign one, and that help is available under the provisions of the Bilingual Education Act. Unfortunately, in recent years that program, devised to help children learn in school and become proficient in English, has placed far too much emphasis on teaching in the foreign language. It is hard enough for administrators to find qualified and dedicated teachers without having to worry about offering chemistry in Farsi or geometry in Hmong.

Secretary of Education William J. Bennett knows that the rigidity of federal policy is hampering this program, and he intends to do something about it. In a speech delivered in New York this week, Mr. Bennett announced that he will amend federal regulations to allow greater flexibility to local school districts in running bilingual programs. The law, he points out, only requires that instruction be provided in a child's native language to the extent necessary to allow him to achieve competence in English. Regulations mandating non-English instruction are intrusive and unnecessary, and he will revise them accordingly. The secretary will also ask Congress to eliminate the 4 percent ceiling on funds for alternative instruction using only English. Some of these programs, carefully structured and staffed by multilingual teachers, have been very successful, and Mr. Bennett wants to give local school boards the right to use them.

There will be opposition of course, mostly fromthose who have a vested interest in continuing the exact form of instruction now mandated by Washington. Parents and students who realize that proficiency in English is an absolute prerequisite to economic advancement will differ. Children with language difficulties must be given special help, and the cultures of their native lands deserve respect and understanding. But we need not apologize, as Secretary Bennett points out, for offering assistance in a form that brings children more quickly into American language and culture and strengthens their ability to participate more fully in national life.