U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona is proposing to move the federal program that supports the nation’s English learners back into the hands of the Education Department’s office of English language acquisition, or OELA.
Federal formula grants for English-language acquisition, known as the Title III program, are currently managed by the office of elementary and secondary education, or OESE, within the department. In his proposed 2024 budget, President Joe Biden is looking to grow that program funding to $1.2 billion, a $305 million increase.
Advocates for English learners have long called for OELA to manage the funds due to the office’s expertise in best practices for these students.
“I know this will strengthen the administration, capacity, and technical assistance of the Title III formula which you and all of our students deserve,” Cardona said of his proposal announced at a National Association for Bilingual Education conference in late February.
Why advocates want OELA to oversee Title III
Title III formula grant funding was shifted to OESE from OELA in 2008 under the rationale that one office should oversee both it and Title I funding, researchers said. English learners also benefit from Title I-funded services.
Within the last 15 years, however, if states and districts had questions over research on best instructional models for English learners, or wanted advice on how to spend federal grant funding to best support these students, they would go to OELA, said Julie Sugarman, a senior policy analyst for PreK-12 Education at the Migration Policy Institute think tank.
Sugarman and others see practical and symbolic benefits to creating a one-stop shop for federal English learner support.
“It isn’t as though bringing Title III over into the rest of the elementary and secondary education section had dramatically excellent effects for Title III itself as a program or our English learners as a student group,” said Conor Williams, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.
Williams hopes that centralizing a majority of federal language-related funding in one silo will attract more attention from Congress to increase funding to OELA’s existing competitive national professional development grants, as well as Title III.
While some advocates are happy to see a proposed increase in Biden’s budget, others are saying it’s still not enough for meaningful change, with a $2 billion total being a better starting point for the next fiscal year, according to Sugarman.
“This amount reflects the increased need to support multilingual learners that had a disproportionate level of disruption to their educations during the pandemic and to reflect the years of flat funding that did not keep up with population growth,” Sugarman said.
In the meantime, giving OELA control over Title III formula funding could lead to needed changes faster.
Research has found that bilingual or dual-language programming best meets the academic and linguistic needs of English learners. With OELA managing Title III, Williams said, there could be a greater national awareness of these educational models as well as more funding put toward building them out.
OELA already has staff working with English learners, teachers, and administrators, as well as years of running webinars and professional development grants. But in the past, when they managed Title III formula grants, they lacked the resources to best support states with these funds, said Diane August, an education consultant with consulting firm D. August and Associates and a co-principal investigator at the Center for the Success of English Learners.
Shifting these dollars back to OELA would also require equipping the office to meet this part of the job.
“It makes sense to move [Title III] back, but also to provide OELA with additional resources for this so that they really can provide states with support they need to make sure that the districts are in compliance and the districts have the sort of information they need to do a good job educating,” August said.
Why moving most EL-related grants under one roof can work
Though the shift has wide appeal among English-learner advocates and researchers, questions remain on what such a move implies in terms of who is responsible for English learners.
For decades now, researchers and advocates alike have been pushing to ensure all educators and administrators at the federal, state, and local levels view English learners as everyone’s responsibility, and not as a group siloed off to a separate government agency or a district’s English-as-a-second-language department.
But having the Title I and Title III formula grants under the same agency and even as part of the same accountability plans—a requirement of the Every Student Succeeds Act—didn’t move the needle much for English learners.
“There’s been concern of ‘we’ve distributed leadership for English learners, distributed responsibility, but it sort of gets lost in everybody’s responsibilities’,” Sugarman said.
Take accountability measures as an example.
Under ESSA, language proficiency accountability became a subset of states’ Title I accountability measures. In theory, this meant that the academic and linguistic success of English learners would be just as important as those of all other students. In practice, English-language proficiency only accounts for a tiny part of most schools’ accountability plans—perhaps 5 percent, Williams said.
What’s needed, Sugarman concluded, is a balancing act between spreading the responsibility of English learners across multiple agencies and educators, but also having a centralized place to go to for specialized knowledge and resources.
Moving Title III funding over to OELA, researchers said, can help meet that balance.
“The bringing of these formula grants closer to the OELA office means that the folks who are the most informed on the language acquisition research and linguistic programming research should be the ones who are then in charge of Title III dollars,” Williams said.”