Equity & Diversity

If Betsy DeVos Scraps the Federal Office for ELLs, Would It Matter?

By Corey Mitchell — June 18, 2018 5 min read
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos pauses during a recent appearance before a Senate subcommittee hearing to review the Fiscal Year 2019 funding request for the U.S. Department of Education. DeVos has proposed scraping the long-standing office of English-language acquisition (OELA).

If U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos scraps the long-standing federal office that supports English-learners, a broad community of advocates and experts, including two former directors of the office, warn the move could harm students who already lag their peers on every academic measure.

Under the proposal, DeVos would fold the office of English-language acquisition, or OELA, into the office for elementary and secondary education. The plan would eliminate the director’s position for OELA, a job currently held by José Viana.

Department of Education officials say restructuring OELA would allow the agency to merge English-learner support with services provided to other vulnerable groups such as homeless students or those in foster care—a move ELL advocates say would work against the best interests of the students.

Kenji Hakuta, a professor emeritus at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, said the probable drawbacks—including a scenario where states follow the lead of the federal government and eliminate or reduce the role of their English-learner offices—outweigh any potential benefits.

“It would be all positive if, in fact, the students were receiving the right kinds of services and the right kind of attention,” said Hakuta, a linguist who is an expert on language acquisition.

But that isn’t the case, Hakuta argues.

An estimated 5 million English-learners attend public schools in the United States, and their academic proficiency and graduation rates lag behind those of their native English-speaking peers.

A 2017 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine found that schools often provide substandard instruction and social-emotional support to English-learners and fail to properly train educators who teach them.

Diminished Clout

The office of English-language acquisition, established during the George W. Bush administration, has had its clout diminished over the past decade. Near the end of his presidency, the Education Department shifted control over hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Title III funds that go to states and districts to support instruction for English-learners from OELA to the office for elementary and secondary education.

Kim Miller, Oregon’s director of English-learner programs and the president of the National Council of State Title III directors, fears the latest move would “lead to the demise of the office completely.”

OELA provides guidance on policy decisions, handles grants that help prepare educators to work with ELLs, and invests in and distributes research through the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. If those services are scaled down, state ELL offices can’t fill the gaps, Miller said.

“Would we lose our researchers, best practices, and professional development?” she asked. “If we don’t have [that], these children could fall through the cracks.”

DeVos’ proposal comes amid concerns from civil rights groups that the Education Department has already failed to ensure equity for English-learners—including approving state Every Student Succeeds Act plans that they contend violate the law and don’t account for ELLs’ needs.

More than half of states’ ESSA plans set lower academic goals for ELLs, at least seven states have plans that flout key provisions of the federal education law, and nearly 20 percent of state plans allow schools to earn high ratings even if English-learners are struggling, an analysis by advocacy groups Achieve and UnidosUS found.

Two former directors of OELA—Kathleen Leos and Libia Gil—say the office should be left intact.

Leos served as the office’s inaugural director during the George W. Bush administration. Gil, who is now the chief education officer for the Illinois state board of education, led the office during the latter half of the Obama administration.

“It’s a special group of students with unique challenges in language acquisition and learning content at the same time,” Leos said. “We need [people] that understand those deep issues.”

Symbol or Substance?

The proposal to scrap OELA is part of a broader effort by DeVos and her deputies to revamp the agency.

It’s the right move, said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Whitehurst, who was the director of the Institute of Education Sciences during the George W. Bush administration, says that directors of smaller offices such as OELA, are more responsible for managing federal funds than setting policy.

“I don’t see the office as bearing directly on services that students receive,” Whitehurst said, arguing that opposition to restructuring the office is a “symbolic issue more than it is an operational issue.”

An 18-group coalition—including the American Federation of Teachers, TESOL International Association, and UnidosUS—has told DeVos that abolishing OELA would be a mistake.

The reorganization “would necessarily and inevitably diminish the time, attention, and supporting expertise and analysis applied to EL issues,” the advocacy coalition wrote to DeVos in a letter.

More than two dozen Democrats in Congress have also pushed back against the proposal. Lawmakers and advocates have questioned whether DeVos has the authority to restructure the office without congressional approval.

On paper, she already has.

Although federal law requires that the office have a director who reports directly to the secretary, under the current organizational chart, the director of OELA reports to the deputy secretary, Mick Zais. In a response to advocates, Zais wrote: “Once implemented, the department knows that its proposed changes will enhance department operations and leverage resources to better serve English-learner students and their families.”

The Education Department did not respond to requests to interview Zais or Viana for this story.

Scrapping OELA could prompt state agencies to merge or abandon their ELL offices, Hakuta said.

“Especially in states where English-learners are likely to kind of slip out of the radar screen ... that would be a negative because you’ll basically lose a voice and expertise in that area.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2018 edition of Education Week as DeVos Warned of Harm to ELLs If She Scraps Federal Office

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