English Learners

Federal Funding for English Learners Has a New Home. What Do Educators Hope This Means?

By Ileana Najarro — January 30, 2024 4 min read
Billy Lopez and Indica Beckham read together during kindergarten class at Fairview Elementary in Carthage, Mo., on Nov. 26, 2018. The Carthage School District, along with three other Missouri districts, is participating in a $2.6 million five-year grant project that seeks to bolster its English Language Learners program. The grant will provide ELL training to teachers in the Carthage, Kansas City Public, Bayless and Columbia school districts.
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Educators and researchers alike generally welcomed the news that the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English language acquisition, or OELA, would oversee control of federal funding for English learners moving forward.

However, educators across the country are now asking: What’s next?

Title III grants, totaling about $890 million, go to states and from there down to districts for supplemental services geared toward English language acquisition like family and community engagement programs and support for schoolwide programming. Since 2008, the office of elementary and secondary education, or OESE, has overseen these federal dollars alongside other programs, such as Title I for schools with students from low-income families. All the while, leaders in OELA have paved the way in terms of providing resources and advice to districts serving English learners.

“Having the true experts in charge of the program is fantastic and has a lot of potential,” said Laura Grisso, the executive director of language and cultural services at Tulsa public schools.

But with Congress still in charge of exactly how much money is available through Title III and the English learner population continuing to grow at a fast pace in parts of the country where they were not traditionally a large subset of the population, educators wonder what meaningful steps OELA can take to support day-to-day needs.

“They made the announcement, great. So what’s this mean? And I know, [OELA] is trying to figure it out at the same time,” Grisso said.

OELA faces some challenges

The Tulsa district, which enrolled more than 33,000 students in the 2021-22 school year, has enrolled more than 100 multilingual learners a week since the start of the 2023-24 school year, many of them recently arrived in the United States, Grisso said. While she and other educators across the country see a need for more money in Title III to account for the national English learner population growth over the years, Grisso worries it might be difficult for any increase to match the pace of growth.

“The amount of funding is and will continue to be an issue with our population growing at the pace that it is,” she said.

Researchers have also pointed to how the mechanisms for getting Title III funding specifically toward addressing an increase in immigrant student enrollment don’t always lead to immediate financial assistance.

Staff at the San Juan Unified school district in California—which serves more than 40,000 students including adult learners and where a lot of engagement work has happened in the last few years to support Afghan refugee families—said it’s too soon to know the impact of OELA’s control over Title III since the program is still under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The requirements don’t seem to have changed, said Raj Rai, the communication director for the district.

Grisso also wants to make sure that OELA still has a voice in comprehensive education decisions moving forward because now that Title III is under its wing, she fears the office may be siloed at the federal level.

Educators see solutions OELA can address now

Montserrat Garibay, assistant deputy secretary and the director of OELA, has said that with control over Title III, she wants to continue to collaborate with other offices including OESE, and expand training resources to superintendents and other education leaders.

Grisso has seen firsthand the impact of when leaders in her district talk more openly about the needs of English learners and invest time and effort into better understanding those needs and how to meet them.

Though as OELA is looking to spread the word about English learner education, Grisso added that curriculum writers should be included in these conversations because resources and materials appropriate for multilingual learners are not plentiful.

“So not only helping schools understand what to do, but helping the curriculum and the people who are creating software programs, helping them truly understand how this should look and what kids really need,” she said.

Betsy Sotomayor, an English-for-speakers-of-other-languages resource teacher for Volusia County public schools in Florida—which serves over 61,400 students—said that it would be helpful if OELA could support schools’ access to high quality software programs for English learners that can lead to more linguistic and academic gains. Sometimes there is funding for programs for these students, but it’s not necessarily the best-quality programs.

Garibay also said last year that she hopes to expand OELA’s monitoring of how states are using Title III grants. It’s something Sotomayor agrees is needed.

“A lot of times money does come in, and it’s not utilized for the correct audience or correct population,” Sotomayor said.

For example, she knows of instances when counties get large numbers of English learners and district leaders opt to hire a specialized teacher to go from school to school instead of investing in more teacher training for all. Training for general education teachers on how to best work with English learners is something Sotomayor hopes OELA can address.

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