The Great Bilingual Education Debate of 1986 officially opened yesterday with a coalition of Hispanic groups accusing Education Secretary William J. Bennett of committing "an act of war. . . upon our children" and promising to fight his proposed regulatory changes for federal aid.

Undersecretary Gary L. Bauer immediately fired back that "these lobbyists are out of touch with the families and communities they claim to represent." He accused them of mounting "another tired effort" to "distort" Bennett's proposal.

Yesterday's sharp rhetoric reflected the explosive nature of the issue, one of the most politically divisive topics in American education.

Bennett reopened that debate last September when he promised to give local school districts more flexibility in deciding whether to offer bilingual education to foreign-speaking students or to substitute other methods.

More than 400 school districts are offering bilingual education under binding agreements signed under pressure from civil rights officials during the Ford administration. But in November, Bauer virtually invited school districts to seek to have those agreements modified, arguing that local authorities "are in the best position to make these educational judgments."

In the Hispanic community, which won the bilingual laws through hard lobbying, the new "English-first" tone of the Education Department was seen as heresy.

"Those of us who hold leadership positions in the Hispanic community cannot help but view the secretary's conduct, to borrow a phrase from the 1983 Commission on Excellence as an 'act of war' -- war upon our children and millions of other language-minority children," said Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Calif.), who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "We will not allow this to happen."

The National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, said in a background paper released yesterday, said, "Mr. Bennett's inflammatory rhetoric, ill-considered bilingual advisory council appointments, and policies which would reduce educational opportunities for Hispanic children have, have called into question his fitness to serve as secretary of Education."

The council also urged Congress to step up oversight of the department, to make sure Bennett does not use the regulatory process to circumvent pro-bilingual laws.

Specifically, Bennett is asking Congress to remove a 4 percent cap on the amount of Title VII Bilingual Education Act money that may be spent on alternative methods. In the meantime, he is proposing a looser interpretation for local school districts in defining what qualifies as an effective program for foreign-speaking children. "This administration has no intent to dismantle the bilingual education program," Bauer said yesterday. "We support the program, and our legislative, budgetary and regulatory proposals are designed to improve it."

The Hispanic groups also attacked some of Bennett's outspoken appointees to an advisory council on bilingual affairs, some of whom have written in conservative publications that the program should be abolished. One article, in the Jan. 4 edition of Human Events, accused "Hispanic militants" of using bilingual education to "retain and expand their representation" among Spanish-speaking voters.