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New Proposal Puts the Federal Office For English Learners in Jeopardy

Earlier this week, a coalition of English learner (EL) advocacy groups sent a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in response to a proposed plan to integrate the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) into the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. The letter outlines the valuable and needed contributions that OELA makes towards ensuring ELs receive an equitable education, co-signed by nearly twenty groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association for Bilingual Education, Migration Policy Institute, Center for Applied Linguistics, Unidos US, and others.

The advocates write that, “OELA plays the lead role in providing expertise, advice, information, research, and assistance to [state and local agencies], educators, and parents, all while serving as the key proponent office in the federal government for the rapidly growing and increasingly diverse population of ELs in our schools.” Currently, ELs make up nearly 10 percent of the K-12 student population and an estimated 23 percent of the preschool age population.

As we have previously written, the most rapid rates of growth  of the EL population are concentrated in the Southeastern states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Kentucky. These new destinations are faced with the task of identifying and implementing effective instructional models and navigating the challenges of building local capacity to equitably serve ELs.

Given growth of ELs in these new destinations, OELA’s role is all the more critical. The resources produced by the office, such as their English Learner Toolkit, provide states and school districts with strategies and tools for meeting their legal obligations to serve EL students. In addition, OELA offers webinars for technical assistance, convenes state policy makers to showcase local innovation, administers the National Professional Development grant program that provides funding for professional development and training for teachers of ELs, and supports research projects that aim to shed light on key issues in EL education.

But, as Education Week reported in February, the Trump administration rationalizes the proposed restructuring by stressing the need for “everyone” working on K-12 issues to consider the needs of these students. It is true that ELs should be integrated into all other educational conversations and decision-making processes. However, it is unlikely that subsuming EL issues under a more general umbrella will lead to this result in a superior way.

By default, the status quo tends to marginalize these students as afterthoughts. To meaningfully disrupt that pattern requires active, aggressive interventions, advocacy, and policy leadership on behalf of ELs in a specific, sustained fashion. As a historically marginalized, minority population, ELs rely on elevated, focused attention to ensure that their unique needs are seen and met, not washed out by the mainstream, majority current of non-EL students.

Equity should be at the forefront of conversations around any proposed change. The very definition of equity specifies the necessity for additional and differentiated resources to students based on their educational needs. English learners have a unique set of educational needs that require dedicated and specialized support. And data suggests that we still have a long way to go in ensuring that EL students are provided with necessary programs and services to help them succeed in school.

As Ruby Takanishi, a New America senior fellow and chair of the recent National Academies consensus study on EL students, shared in an email, OELA plays a critical role in ensuring equitable educational opportunities for EL students.  As she explained, it is important to have a specialized division within the Department of Education “until such time when [ELs] are no longer invisible in schools, which in many places they are.”

The proposed restructuring of OELA is bad optics; it reads as an organizational downgrade for EL issues. Given the growing population of ELs, this is precisely the time when our public leaders should be raising up EL issues, not demoting them to a lower status.