SEVENTEEN YEARS AFTER Ronald Reagan pledged to abolish the Department of Education, few Republicans in Congress will even discuss that goal, let alone pursue it. Perhaps they have lost sight of how some education bureaucrats spend their time when unconstrained by fear of political reprisal.

Consider, for example, the recent behavior of the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights toward the school district in Denver. At a moment when Denver is taking bold risks to boost academic achievement -- including mandatory summer school for poor readers and a revamped program for thousands of students who don't speak English -- the Office for Civil Rights has asked the Justice Department to mire the district in a destructive legal battle.

The district's offense? Its proposed reform for bilingual education does not match in every detail the canon preferred by federal officials. And because the district's democratically elected board -- including one black and one Hispanic member -- unanimously disagrees with the federal prescription, it has been accused of discriminating against students on the basis of their national origin.

No one disputes the state of the bilingual program that Denver intends to retool. It is a failure, at least to the limited extent anyone has bothered to measure its results over the years. Even the district acknowledges that during one recent two-year period, "40 percent of students tested made no progress on a test of oral English proficiency." With more than 20 percent of Denver's students speaking a language other than English, this abysmal performance qualifies as a civic scandal.

Not that the district has any intention of doing away altogether with bilingual instruction, wise as that might be. Under a 1984 consent decree imposed by U.S. judge Richard Matsch (now of Oklahoma City bombing-trial fame) , the district probably could not dump bilingual instruction if it wanted to. Not only did Matsch require elaborate English-acquisition programs, he was positively disdainful of the district's desire to mainstream immigrant students sooner rather than later. "The fortunate few," he dubbed those children in full-blown bilingual programs, while lecturing Denver officials on the nature of democracy.

To this day, wholesale revisions to Denver's bilingual program must pass muster with Matsch, so the district has little choice Out to make the best of a dubious educational model. And that is precisely what it has sought to do. Under the district's new bilingual plan, Spanish-speaking students would still be taught core subjects in their native tongue. But they would move into "sheltered English" or mainstream classes in three years or less, rather than at the more stately pace common today. Students not able to make the transition on time would receive special attention in an effort to spur their progress.

In addition, Denver would give parents a greater say in where their children are placed and abandon the rigid practice of retaining students in special programs solely because they score below the cutoff on a standardized test. This last rule, originally imposed by Matsch, ignores the fact that thousands of Denver students who speak nothing but English also score badly on the tests.

To the Office for Civil Rights, such common-sense reform smacks of the spirit of Orval Faubus. Not only does the agency oppose virtually every initiative to streamline the bilingual program and nudge students into regular classes on a reasonable schedule, it demands the adoption of policies that would expand the program and quite possibly retard students' already glacial progress.

To appreciate the agency's radical stance, one need only review a broadside sent last July from the agency's Lillian Gutierrez to superintendent Irv Moskowitz. In her letter, Gutierrez asserts, "Determining that a national- origin language-minority student speaks only English, or speaks English most of the time, is not equivalent to determining that the student is proficient in the language skills required to participate meaningfully in an English- only academic environment." In other words, the fact that a student speaks only English shouldn't exclude him from a program meant for students who don't speak English; the district is expected to test and in many cases provide special assistance for students simply because they hail from a home in which someone speaks a foreign language.

Gutierrez's letter continues in this expansive vein. She scorns parental choice, demanding special services even for students whose parents reject bilingual and "English as a Second Language" programs in favor of mainstream classes. She insists that the district "remedy academic deficits that may have occurred in other subjects while the student was focusing on learning English" -- meaning that students who emerge a step or two behind some of their mainstream counterparts after spending four or five years "learning English" must continue to receive special help, even if other equally low- scoring students do not. She demands that all parents receive school notices " in a language and mode of communication appropriate to their language needs," though Denver is home to immigrants who speak an astonishing array of languages. Student notices must be translated, too. Indeed, Gutierrez pointedly complains that "a schedule of upcoming visits by college representatives, and application deadlines for various scholarship funds appeared in English only -- although how students who can't even read such basic announcements in English could get into a college, let alone obtain a scholarship, is never explained.

Given the agency's roll call of specifications, you might conclude that a specific form of English-language instruction is mandated by federal law. It isn't. Schools are obliged to offer children special language programs, but the idea that the Office for Civil Rights has designed the optimal method to achieve that goal hardly withstands scrutiny.

For that matter, when the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council recently reviewed the huge body of studies of bilingual education, it concluded, "We do not yet know whether there will be long-term advantages or disadvantages to initial literacy instruction in the primary language versus English, given a very high-quality program of known effectiveness in both cases." That is the council's polite way of admitting that research fails to confirm any superiority of bilingual education, though it is extremely costly to provide. To the extent the studies show anything, it is that students in other English-acquisition programs, or even in no special program at all, regularly equal or exceed the progress of their counterparts in bilingual classes.

Such awkward facts may not yet register with the canonists in the Office for Civil Rights, but they are being noticed, increasingly, by others. In November, 86 percent of voters in the Orange County, California, school district endorsed that school board's plan to dump bilingual education and replace it with "English immersion." And next year, the entire state of California may vote on whether to eliminate bilingual programs. With the Office for Civil Rights actively alienating former friends in cities like Denver, bilingual education could be more vulnerable everywhere than even its most ardent opponents once dared to hope.

Vincent Carroll is editorial-page editor of the Rocky Mountain News.

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