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Financing Dual Language Learning: The Road Ahead

With Republicans poised to take control of both the House and Senate come the January swearing-in ceremonies, outsiders are starting to look ahead to what will come next. According to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), soon-to-be-chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee, reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is his highest priority--though he’s made few, if any, mentions of English language proficiency. That has advocates for dual language learners (DLLs) asking what will come of the English language acquisition grants.

As we explained in parts one and two of our three-part series, federal dollars for dual language learners (Title III funds) are awarded to states on the basis of each state’s share of dual language learners (80 percent of the formula) and share of immigrant children (20 percent of the formula). But the larger controversy rests in who counts those children.  Federal law permits the Department of Education to use either Census Bureau sampling estimates or state counts of children--and to date, it uses the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), despite some of the shortcomings of the data.

But those might not always be the choices. In a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (NCLB is the latest iteration of that law), retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, current chair of the HELP Committee, rewrote the data requirements for Title III funding. Instead, his bill would require the use of Census Bureau ACS data in calculating the share of immigrant children in each state. For the larger portion of the formula--each state’s share of dual language learners, specifically--the Department of Education would be able to use ACS data, state-reported data, a combination of both sources, or another, more reliable source of data.

That recommendation is similar--though not as prescriptive--as the ones in a 2011 report from the National Research Council. The Department of Education requested that the Committee on National Statistics and Board on Testing and Assessment form a commission to examine the federal funding formula for state DLL programs, and reported back with recommendations.

The resulting report urged the Department of Education to utilize both state counts and Census data for the 80 percent of the formula that asks about states’ share of DLL students. Specifically, it called for the Department to weight the state data on students who scored below English proficiency on a state assessment as 25 percent of the overall data, and ACS data as 75 percent. When (or if) states have better, more comparable data, the report recommends moving towards a 50-50 split between state and national data. For the remaining 20 percent of the formula that awards funds based on states’ share of immigrant children, it suggests continuing to use the ACS data. However, the commission also recommends that the Census Bureau begin working to research and ultimately improve its survey question about English language proficiency.

The Harkin proposal makes few efforts to improve the data that states provide, but leaves the option to work state-collected figures into the funding formula open to the U.S. Department of Education. That means it would be on the states to enhance the integrity of their dual language learner data, should they want those numbers factored into the federal funding formula (and in that case, there are clearly plenty of states that would stand to benefit).

But with Sen. Harkin on his way out the door, even his modest proposal may be unlikely to happen. Sen. Alexander appears to  have less interest in revising the formula in his role as incoming chair of the HELP Committee. His Every Child Ready for College or Career Act, an ESEA reauthorization bill introduced last year, made no mention of editing the funding formula, let alone dictating or allowing new or different data sources in the process. In fact, effectively his only mention of the federal program in the bill was to cut the total funds available to states that serve dual language learners. And while Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, released his own bill that would add an option to combine ACS and state count data in distributing funds, it otherwise scrapped the entire Title III provision, moving the accountability elements to Title I reporting requirements, instead.

It seems evident that the national data, derived from Census Bureau sampling, are insufficient to reliably and equitably distribute limited federal dollars. But the state data should be brought up to snuff before the Department of Education accepts them as valid-- a process that has been underway since the release of a 2006 GAO report discussed in Part II of the blog series. Once that happens, a careful combination of data sources might mean the fairest funding formula possible. We here at New America will be keeping a close eye on Congress as it pursues a long-overdue reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act--and, perhaps, a much-needed reconsideration of dual language learners’ needs.

This is the final post in our three-part series on Title III funding for dual language learners. Read parts one and two here and here.