English-Language Learners Explainer

Title III Funding for English Learners, Explained

By Ileana Najarro — April 26, 2024 7 min read
Second grade students raise their hands in Dalia Gerardo's classroom at West Elementary, in Russellville, Ala., on Dec. 9, 2022.
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As the nation’s English-learner population grows each year, more researchers and policymakers are discussing how to best support these students linguistically and academically. Much of that discussion revolves around available resources for these students, including the only federal funding stream designated for this population: Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, specifically Title III’s state formula grants.

Originating when the ESEA was reauthorized under No Child Left Behind in 2002, Title III grants send states and districts funding toward supplemental services for English learners. Schools can use other federal funds for these students, but Title III is reserved for them.

The rules for the grant focus on the term “supplemental.” Generally, this means Title III cannot cover anything required by federal, state, or local laws and consent decrees.

Different offices within the U.S. Department of Education have managed Title III. In 2023, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona moved the administration of Title III dollars to the office of English language acquisition, known as OELA. Educators and researchers alike applauded the move, saying OELA is a leading source of best practices related to serving English learners and their families.

However questions and issues remain around Title III, including whether Congress has appropriately funded the program, and whether the rules as they stand work to help students. For one thing, the growth in Title III total dollar amounts has not kept up with the faster growth of the national English-learner population.

Title III Funding and EL Enrollment, School Years 2005-06 through 2020-21

Here’s a quick overview of how Title III formula grants work, and the issues some researchers and educators say need to be addressed.

What is the purpose of Title III formula grants?

The Title III formula grants were designed to provide supplemental funding to help states and districts improve their services for English learners. Funding goes to states, which can reserve a small percentage of the federal dollars, and disperse the bulk to districts that have English learners and apply for those funds, said Andrea Boyle, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research who studies the implementation of federal education programs like Title I—the much larger federal program providing extra funds for low-income students—and Title III.

While these federal dollars are reserved for supporting English learners, states and districts can combine Title III dollars with Title I and other federal programs, Boyle added. In fact, under the most recent reauthorization of the ESEA, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, accountability requirements for English learners were merged with those in Title I.

In addition, states must monitor whether districts that receive Title III funds are providing services that are effective, and take steps to help districts improve less effective programs, Boyle added.

How do Title III formula grants work?

In the last fiscal year, the total dollar amount for Tile III formula grants was about $890 million. The minimum amount districts receive is about $10,000.

About 80 percent of federal allocations to states are based on each state’s share of English learners, and then the remaining 20 percent is based on the share of students who are recent immigrants, also known as newcomer students, said Amalia Chamorro, director of education policy at UnidosUS, a Latino civil rights and advocacy organization. States then distribute those grant funds to local school districts.

Chamorro noted there may be a misconception that Title III is designated for immigrant students, when in reality most English learners served by these federal dollars are U.S. citizens born in the United States.

That said, Title III does have provisions that states are required to reserve some of their Title III funds for immigrant children and youth—in particular, for districts that experience a substantial increase in their immigrant student population, Boyle said. These specific Title III funds can be used to support a variety of different services that are tailored to newcomer students such as family services, newcomer programs, and activities that help students and families transition to the U.S. education system.

These dollars are meant to be supplemental because states and localities are responsible for the core needs of English learners, said Julie Sugarman, associate director of K-12 education research at the think tank Migration Policy Institute.

Testing to see if students are classified as English learners, English-as-a-second-language teacher salaries, and anything that is required from a federal consent decree cannot be paid for with Title III funds. Nor can other mandatory state requirements: If a new state law requires all students to have laptops in class, Title III funds cannot be used to provide this resource for English learners. Same goes for any services previously paid for with state or local funds.

The rule of thumb, Sugarman and others note, is that if it’s required in some capacity under local, state, or federal law, it’s not an allowable service under Title III.

How are Title III formula grants typically used?

There are typically three buckets under which Title III spending fits.

One is on providing professional development for English-learner educators and others. Another is also enhancing instructional programs for English learners, such as after-school tutoring and supplemental textbooks. Yet another is a bucket for other effective strategies including parent, family, and community engagement, Boyle said.

Professional development and technical assistance are big uses of Title III. Sugarman says those programs have helped financially support the movement toward recognizing that all teachers, not just English-learner specialists, are responsible for the linguistic and academic success of English learners.

Title III dollars can, for instance, be used to hire someone to lead workshops with high school math and science teachers who struggle to understand and incorporate English-language objectives in their classrooms, Sugarman said. These funds can also pay for English-learner teachers to get additional credentials.

Smaller districts with fewer English learners can come together with other districts as a consortium to pool Title III funds for shared use, such as professional development for all districts within the consortium.

What are some issues with the Title III formula grant program?

Some issues complicate Title III’s effectiveness.

For instance, many schools have been enrolling more students mid-year than ever before, with many such students being newly arrived immigrants, Sugarman said. With school budgets set based on previous year’s allocations, this can leave schools in a bind.

Sugarman added that immigration is a federal responsibility. Federal policy dictates how many people can come into the country, but then it is the responsibility of states and localities to meet their needs including education.

“People have looked at the question of whether the federal government should really foot the bill for the whole amount of money to serve these kids, because they are coming in based on federal policy,” Sugarman said.

For state allocations of Title III funds, census data is used to determine the size of English-learner populations since census data have a consistent methodology across all states. But unlike the poverty data used for calculating Title I, the English-learner population across states is often in flux. Since the allocations are based on past history and census data, they don’t always keep pace with states’ needs at a given time, Sugarman added.

One longstanding complaint—as with federal special education funding—is that it simply isn’t enough. Advocates have denounced what they call Congress’ underfunding of Title III dollars, contending it has not kept pace with either the growing English-learner population nor inflation, Chamorro said. UnidosUS and other advocates have called for a $2 billion total for the program.

These questions will remain over the future of the program and its viability. In the meantime, researchers such as Boyle suggest educators managing these funds ask themselves the following questions: What needs do we have? What can we use these funds for? And what kind of strategies are effective in addressing those needs? Those questions can guide educators to make decisions about how to use Title III effectively in relation to all the other funding they have available.


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