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).
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity From Our Research Center Do Educators Think Critical Race Theory Should Be Taught in Class? We Asked
An EdWeek poll shows educators are split over whether children should be taught that racism is systemic and embedded in American policies.
2 min read
Photo of elementary students raising their hands in classroom.
skynesher/Getty
Equity & Diversity Students Embrace a Wide Range of Gender Identities. Most School Data Systems Don't
Districts like Philadelphia aren't waiting for the federal government to make their student information systems more inclusive.
9 min read
Illustration showing 4 individuals next to their pronouns (he/him, they/them, and she/her)
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Equity & Diversity Teachers Are Divided on Teaching LGBTQ Topics
Educators say a dearth of curriculum, lack of training, and fear of getting it wrong can cause hesitation to teach about LGBTQ topics.
7 min read
People wave pride flags and hold signs during a rally in support of LGBTQ students at Ridgeline High School, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Millville, Utah. Students and school district officials in Utah are outraged after a high school student ripped down a pride flag to the cheers of other students during diversity week. A rally was held the following day in response to show support for the LGBTQ community.
People wave pride flags and hold signs during a rally in support of LGBTQ students at Ridgeline High School, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Millville, Utah. Students and school district officials in Utah are outraged after a high school student ripped down a pride flag to the cheers of other students during diversity week. A rally was held the following day in response to show support for the LGBTQ community.
Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP
Equity & Diversity 'You're Not Going To Teach About Race. You're Going To Go Ahead and Keep Your Job.'
Educators in Oklahoma say a new law restricting classroom conversations about race and racism is causing widespread confusion and fear.
6 min read
Regan Killackey, AP English Language & AP Research teacher at Edmond Memorial High School in Edmond, Okla., in his classroom on Nov. 15, 2021
Regan Killackey, AP English Language & AP Research teacher at Edmond Memorial High School in Edmond, Okla., in his classroom.
Brett Deering for Education Week