What the Student Success Act Could Mean for DLLs

On Tuesday, Reps. John Kline and Todd Rokita introduced the Student Success Act to replace the much-maligned, outdated No Child Left Behind--the same bill that passed a House vote back in 2013. Most notably for dual language learner (DLL) advocates, Kline’s bill (once again) eliminates Title III. My colleague Conor Williams wrote about the specifics and potential implications of this change back in 2013.

In short, Kline’s bill subsumes Title III within Title I and provides states flexibility to use the designated funds to  “carry out any state activity” included in other sections of Title I. Translation: states can use this money almost any way they like. Earlier this week, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights called the bill a step back “to an earlier time when states could choose to ignore the needs of children of color, low-income students, ELLs, and students with disabilities.”

To be clear, there’s a method to Kline’s approach. The flexibility offered in the bill could allow states to pick and choose which students to focus on. Additionally, it is not such a departure from the flexibility some states provide to districts under their student funding formulas. According to an ECS brief - State Funding Mechanisms for English Language Learners - 33 states use funding formulas to provide extra funding to DLLs. However, state weighting formulas provide districts with flexibility to decide how funds are used and  “does not...always guarantee that the additional funds will be spent on [DLLs].”

Flexibility can be a good thing. It allows districts and states to use their judgement about how best to use federal funds to support goals and desired outcomes. States and school districts make tough calls about how to target finite resources all the time.  For example, here in the District of Columbia, our ESEA waiver was amended to eliminate the 20 percent of funds set aside for Title I schools that failed to meet performance targets for two consecutive years. Instead that money went to the city’s lowest performing schools under the argument that the set-aside was not “providing enough flexibility for the LEAs to use those funds in a way that was really going to help their neediest schools.” (as stated by former DC State Superintendent of Education Jesús Aguirre)

Of course, by definition, flexibility leaves districts and states room to make inequitable decisions as well. A district or state  could use the new freedom to reduce funding for DLLs in order to redistribute those funds to students, programs or schools perceived to have greater need. Sadly, the majority of states don’t have a strong track record in prioritizing the needs of DLLs.

And, even under federal monitoring, without the flexibility Kline’s bill would grant,  states are uncertain of what is allowable under Title III. A quick scan of ED’s State Title III monitoring reports reveals that states don’t always used these funds to support DLLs educational needs. For example, one state was cited for “spending Title III funds on expenditures that were not allowable, including on an oscillating fan [...] food, copy paper, stationary, and paper products. The total cost of these expenditures was over $137,000 [...] sufficient evidence [was not provided] of how these expenditures were required to support Title III activities.”

Additionally, these monitoring reports reveal states’ confusion around the “supplement not supplant” provision of Title III. This rule says that states cannot use these funds to “pay for services that, in the absence of Title III funds, would be necessary to be provided by other Federal, or State, or local funds.” That is, states cannot use these funds to pay for textbooks, for staff to attend conferences, or for the administration of various assessments.

The National Evaluation of Title III Implementation revealed that many districts find Title III funds to be insufficient to meet the needs of DLL students. The majority of funding for DLLs comes from state and local funds, which varies considerably from state to state. Moreover, funds designated for DLLs are usually not based on the actual cost of programs and services but rather on how much is available in state and local budgets. Additionally, states don’t necessarily update their DLL funding formulas in response to changes in the DLL population or needs. For example, the state of Texas has a .10 weight for DLLs that has not been updated since 1984. Nor do the majority of DLL funding weights match the research on what constitutes adequate funding for these students. Specifically, that DLLs should receive a weight of .50, or an additional 50% of the base funding amount.

What does this mean? Bottom line: DLLs are grossly underfunded and existing Title III funds aren’t enough to supplement state and district efforts to provide DLLs with the supports, services and human capital necessary to boost and sustain their academic achievement.  Why, then, would it make sense to give states leeway on whether they used those scarce Title III dollars for DLLs? This would seem to make it more likely that those resources would be diluted by spending on other priorities unrelated to DLLs.

While Kline’s bill hasn’t changed since 2013, the need to better serve language learners has grown more pressing as districts face increased DLL enrollments and increased challenges providing these students with the supports and programs necessary for them to succeed and thrive.

Note: This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learner National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work."

Author:

Amaya Garcia is a senior researcher in the Education Policy program at New America where she provides research and analysis on policies and programs related to dual language education, bilingual teacher preparation and early education.