Is Betsy DeVos About to Scrap the Federal Office for English-Language Learners?

By Corey Mitchell — May 10, 2018 3 min read
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Education and immigration advocates are pushing back against a Trump administration plan that would consolidate the federal office that helps guide education for millions of English-language-learner and immigrant students.

Under the proposal, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would fold her department’s office of English-language acquisition into the broader office for elementary and secondary education, according to advocacy groups briefed this week on the department’s potential plan.

The proposal also calls for eliminating the director’s position for the English-language acquisition office, a job currently held by José Viana.

Education Department officials told advocacy groups that the latest plan to restructure would allow the department to merge English-learner support with services provided to other disadvantaged student groups—a decision that ELL advocates say would actually work against the best interests of the students. The move is part of a broader effort by DeVos and her deputies to revamp the agency, which Education Week first reported about in February.

In a statement, Education Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said: “The department is in the early stages of considering how best to break down silos, improve policy and program coordination and ensure all students have the support, attention and resources they deserve from the department.”

The office of English-language acquisition, created during the George W. Bush administration, has had its clout diminished over the past decade. Near the end of his presidency, authority over most of the $800 million in federal Title III funds that go to states and districts to support instruction for English-learners was shifted to the office for elementary and secondary education—which could now totally absorb the English-language office.

There are an estimated 5 million English-learners in public K-12 schools in the United States—and their academic proficiency and high school graduation rates lag behind those of their native English-speaking peers.

Citing the prevalence of English-learners in public schools and their struggles, an 18-group coalition—including the American Federation of Teachers, Californians Together, League of United Latin American Citizens, Migration Policy Institute, National Association for Bilingual Education, TESOL International Association, and UnidosUS—wrote to DeVos this week, asking her to pour more resources into the office of English-language acquisition.

The reorganization “would necessarily and inevitably diminish the time, attention, and supporting expertise and analysis applied to EL issues,” their letter to DeVos reads. “Rather than diminishing the role of OELA by subsuming it in a much larger organization, where it would be forced to compete for resources and attention, we believe that the present time affords an opportunity to strengthen OELA.”

The groups also questioned whether DeVos has the right to reorganize the office because federal law requires that the office have a director who reports directly to the education secretary.

The coalition worries that lumping in English-learner issues with those of other students under Title I would undermine an office that has already taken its fair share of lumps. Advocates and researchers contend that policy decisions made during the Obama administration also weakened the clout and capacity of the office, leaving schools across the country without clear direction and coherent policy and practices on English-learner education.

The lack of commitment to the office has also prevented the nation from adequately addressing the national shortage of qualified bilingual teachers and meeting the growing national demand for language-immersion programs, the advocates argue.

Here’s a look at the advocacy groups’ letter to DeVos.

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Photo: Teaching assistant Richard Nolasco listens to Joshua Flores and Ke’mari Barnes during their prekindergarten class at Tulsa’s Dual Language Academy. The population of Oklahoma’s second-largest school district has shifted dramatically in recent years, with nearly 1 in every 3 students coming from homes where Spanish is the primary language. --Shane Bevel for Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.