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Is Federal Funding for Immigrant Students Falling Short?

Year over year, more immigrant students have been enrolling in U.S. schools after arriving from Latin America, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and elsewhere—all with needs that go beyond instructional supports.

That’s why researchers and advocates want to improve the federal funding mechanism for supporting districts with an influx of immigrant children and youth. They seek to better account for continued growth in this particular student population, and to better serve all English-learners’ academic and social-emotional needs emerging out of the pandemic.

A new report from the Next 100—a startup initiative out of The Century Foundation, a progressive public policy think tank—outlines how the current model of federal funding for supporting immigrant students, commonly known as Title III, limits school districts’ abilities to sustain programming these students and their families rely on.

“The U.S. education system is one of the biggest institutions that students encounter when they arrive in this country,” said Alejandra Vázquez Baur, the report’s author. “It’s important for the government to invest in consistent and adequate programs and supports for those students when they’re here.”

What is Title III and how does it work for immigrant students?

Title III (officially known as the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act) was established in the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002 and reauthorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act, in 2015. Congress appropriated close to $800 million for Title III in fiscal year 2022.

It was designed to ensure schools could help English-learners—and immigrant children and youth—achieve English proficiency, develop high levels of academic achievement in English, and learn alongside their non-English-learner peers. Its supplemental funding allows schools and districts to go beyond their basic obligation to provide services to English-learners. The funding breakdown works like this:

  • A small percentage of this federal funding (about 7.5 percent) stays with the U.S. Department of Education for research on English-learners and other purposes.
  • The rest goes to states in the form of grants. States keep a small amount, about 5 percent, for state activities, like providing training to support districts with English-learners. They also set aside up to 15 percent of the total in a special fund for immigrant student services.
  • States pass the rest of the amount allotted to districts for professional development, program evaluations, and other uses to help English-learners.
  • From there, if a district experiences a significant increase in immigrant youth enrollment (compared to the average of those enrolled in the 2 previous fiscal years), then it can request funds out of the state’s set-aside for immigrant students.

States define what counts as a significant increase and any other eligibility requirements to tap into that 15 percent pool of state funding. But those requirements seem to limit districts’ abilities to support these students, said Vázquez Baur of the Next 100.

In California, for instance, districts must report at least 2 percent of an increase in immigrant student enrollment compared to recent years to qualify as a significant increase.

So say a district in California gets a little over a 2 percent increase. The district would then be eligible for those immigrant student support funds. But in the following fiscal year, the district’s immigrant student population remains relatively stable. Then the district is no longer eligible for those funds, potentially jeopardizing the supports the district had put in place.

“Consistency is critical for students, for any student, but especially students who are highly mobile, especially students who are new to the country who have experienced any sort of trauma in their past,” Vázquez Baur said.

Immediate assistance for these students and their families is critical, she said. But she worries about how well districts can sustain programming when dealing with strict eligibility requirements for funding that varies state by state. It takes well beyond one school year to fully support immigrant students and their families, Vázquez Baur’s research indicates.
In the report, she outlines a new approach for rethinking the immigrant student funding: replacing it with a formula system where funding is based on the number of immigrant students in each district. That’s similar to how districts get funding to support English-learners overall—many of whom were born in the U.S.

Along with that formula model, Vázquez Baur proposes establishing a separate emergency-use fund that is distributed at the discretion of the U.S. secretary of education to address sudden influxes, and to assist districts in adapting to community changes while maintaining services for students already in the district.

What are some issues with this model and possible fixes?

That idea has some critics of its own.

“I think the intention is to use the Title III immigrant money to start or enhance programs, because there’s always an extra cost associated with that, but then the ongoing continuation of the program should come out of local funds,” said Julie Sugarman, a senior policy analyst for pre-K to 12 education for the Migration Policy Institute think tank which offers research and analysis of immigration policies.

The current Title III funding model was set up to explicitly help districts that suddenly saw an influx of immigrant students in need of extra support beyond academic and linguistic needs such as cultural and psychological needs. That’s an important priority that shouldn’t be lost, Sugarman said.

She has greater concern over the data used to track significant increases in immigrant student enrollment—the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.

Census data is always on a lag, Sugarman said. If a bus pulls up this month with 25 students who now need to be enrolled and require additional support, those students won’t be counted for funding until about two or three years down the line.

Both Sugarman and Vázquez Baur also said what advocates for English-learners have noted for years: There’s just not enough cash overall in Title III.
Total Title III appropriations have remained relatively unchanged, despite the growth of the English-learner population by over 1 million during that same time period, Vázquez Baur’s report shows. About $1 billion has been requested for fiscal year 2023, according to the Education Department.

And the pandemic highlighted the need for exactly the kind of programs Title III can cover to support English-learners overall, such as coordination with other services and parent involvement, Sugarman said.

At a time when there are more headlines of migrant families bused or flown across state lines and when schools have been accepting more Afghan and Ukrainian refugee students, Vázquez Baur hopes lasting improvements to federal funding for these students can be made.

“Title I and Title III, among others, have been really instrumental in shifting the focus from educating the majority, to focusing on equity for specific groups of students that have been relegated to the margins by our K-12 institutions,” Vázquez Baur said. “Title III has the opportunity to be really transformational for English-learners and immigrant students. And what we’re discovering is in the current model, it’s not there yet.”

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