English Learners

$890 Million in English-Learner Aid Is Under New Management. Why Researchers Are Hopeful

By Ileana Najarro — December 19, 2023 4 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his office at the Department of Education, Sept. 20, 2023 in Washington. A new federal rule threatens to cut federal money to college programs that consistently leave graduates with low pay or unaffordable debt. The gainful employment rule finalized by the Biden administration on Wednesday applies mostly to for-profit colleges, along with certificate programs at traditional universities.
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Management over the state grants for improving instruction of English learners returned to the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English language acquisition, known as OELA, this week.

The office of elementary and secondary education, or OESE, has overseen Title III grants for the last 15 years. The federal aid is intended for supplemental services in language and academic instruction of English learners.

Even without control over Title III funds, OELA has led the conversation around best practices for English-learner education since it was created by Congress in 2002 through the No Child Left Behind Act. Researchers hope that OELA’s impact on English-learner policy and instruction will grow under the latest move.

OELA could be well positioned to analyze how districts spend the funds, and conduct more state monitoring.

“We need to be more thoughtful, more purposeful in the way that we’re going to support state formula programs,” said Montserrat Garibay, assistant deputy secretary and the director of OELA.

The benefits of a centralized hub

Educators are likely most familiar with Title III funding in the form of formula grants given to states with dollar amounts often dependent on English learner-population numbers. Uses can vary from professional development services to even summer camp programming for immigrant students.

Through outreach efforts, and offering webinars and toolkits on a variety of topics related to English learners, OELA serves as a major resource for educators hoping to better support their students in acquiring the English language.

But with Title III funding out of its purview all these years, the office could only accomplish so much, said Amaya Garcia, director of PreK–12 research and practice at the left-leaning think tank New America.

“By not having accountability sit with them, I think it sort of distanced them from some of what actually happened in schools, ... because it was overseen by a different part of the [department of education],” Garcia said.

A former OELA director told Education Week earlier this year that it was unclear why oversight of Title III moved out of OELA in 2008.

For Conor Williams, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation think tank, the program’s return to OELA helps make English learners a priority at the federal level.

“It establishes a hub at the department, a much larger hub under OELA, where language equity is the focus for everybody involved in those funding streams,” Williams said. “ It centralizes the brainpower of the people involved.”

Garibay, the current OELA director, is excited about the prospect of English-learner funding no longer working within what she described as a silo under OESE. Now the various offices can better collaborate with OELA taking the lead.

She wants to scale up state monitoring of Title III dollars. Due to its limited capacity, OESE has only been able to monitor four states per year, Garibay said.

“With Title III together, we can really leverage things more. So more information can be shared with stakeholders,” Garibay said. “And that right there is going to be huge because we are going to be working together in making sure that we have the capacity, that we have communication with stakeholders in a bigger way.”

What lies in store

Logistically, the process for states and districts to receive Title III funding hasn’t changed as a result of the move, Garibay said.

However, there is already discussion within OELA and among researchers as to what changes can come about moving forward.

Garibay, for instance, has already heard from educators that administrators and superintendents are sometimes the last to know about English-learner research and pedagogy. That’s why OELA is looking into providing training and webinars for these leaders on these topics.

She is also hoping her office can more directly engage with educators on the ground in terms of listening to what they need, and seeing how OELA can help.

Garcia said there’s an opportunity for OELA to potentially review whether Title III is too restrictive in terms of how educators can spend the funds. Right now, the funds are specifically limited to supplemental services.

Williams hopes that OELA can continue to review how Title III dollars are used for effectiveness, meaning whether the language programs that are funded through these grants match research on what works best for English learners—including looking into bilingual and dual-language programs.

Both Garcia and Williams also claim that funding for Title III—which is about $890 million—hasn’t kept pace with inflation costs and the growth of the English-learner population nationally. (Congress, not OELA, authorizes and appropriates funding for Title III.)

When asked whether OELA can make a stronger case for more Title III dollars now that it will oversee the program, Garibay said she hopes so.

“We do need, obviously, the resources to do it, to have a strong foundation of what that looks like, and funding is a vital part of it,” she said.

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