WASHINGTON — In an escalation of the bilingual education battle, a coalition of Latino groups responded formally Friday to the Reagan Administration's plans to loosen federal bilingual regulations, labeling them "poorly conceived" and a distortion of congressional intent.
The proposed rules "conflict with the express wording" of the federal laws that created bilingual education programs, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, League of United Latin American Citizens and National Council of La Raza charged.
The groups raised their objections in a letter to the Education Department, calling the proposals a "poorly conceived 'initiative' on bilingual education" that jeopardizes the educational rights and opportunities available to children who speak little English.
In announcing the proposals last Sept. 26, Education Secretary William J. Bennett declared his intention to seek "flexibility" in federally funded programs for local school districts by allowing more bilingual classes to be taught in English instead of in students' native languages.
$1.7 Billion Spent
Bennett contended that there is "no evidence" that children had benefited from the $1.7 billion spent during 17 years of federal involvement in bilingual education. The proposed regulations are designed to implement Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as rewritten by Congress last year.
The Latino groups' two-page letter, which was released at a news briefing, was accompanied by a point-by-point critique of the proposals. After the 1 1/2-hour briefing, representatives of the groups threatened to sue the federal government or local school districts if the new rules take effect.
"If that's what it takes, that's what we'll do" to preserve bilingual education programs, said John D. Trasvina, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Loss of Programs Feared
Latino groups have interpreted Bennett's plan as an effort to remove federal support for bilingual education, a move they fear would leave many local districts free to halt the programs, which serve 206,000 students nationwide.
The regulations, they assert, would improperly restrict the objectives of programs under Title VII, which mandates that children must be helped "to achieve full proficiency in English" and "to meet grade promotion and graduation standards."
As an example, the Latino groups said, the Education Department's plan to make students master English "as quickly as possible" might foster local programs that "in their haste to exit children . . . do not equip (them) with an adequate degree of English proficiency."
At the news briefing, officials of several groups castigated the Administration's position as a demonstration of its lack of commitment to education in general and to Latino concerns in particular.
Shortage of Teachers
Noting the nationwide shortage of bilingual education teachers, Arturo Vargas, an education policy fellow at La Raza, said that Bennett's plan "goes against the 'academic excellence' rhetoric we've been hearing." Halting bilingual education would cause Latinos to "start falling behind grade level" and Latino dropout rates to "skyrocket," he predicted.
Similarly, James J. Lyons, legislative counsel of the National Assn. for Bilingual Education, said he found the Administration's "message is confusing" and added: "The fundamental problem facing these students is educational neglect."
Joe Duardo, president of the California School Boards Assn., asserted that the federal moves are linked to a nationwide attempt to establish an "English only" rule in America. The proposed regulations would "add to the backlash" of this effort, he said.
At the Education Department, Undersecretary Gary L. Bauer defended the proposals and said that "I don't think there's any basis for any fear" of the changes. He added that the department has received very few comments on the proposals from individuals across the country.
"It appears what we're going to have on the record is these Washington-based groups that claim to speak for people," Bauer said.