This Newsbrief gives our sense of important and timely federal educational news within the following process and protest context:
English Learners and US ED
August 17, 2018
It appears the United States Department of Education (US ED) is moving promptly to eliminate its Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), and plans to do so without the approval of Congress and without a formal process for public input. Specifically, US ED’s plans appear to be to transfer the work of OELA into the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE), and to eliminate altogether the position of director of OELA, a position required by federal statute. These moves promise to have very significant implications for US ED’s ability to support the education of English Learner students and immigrants.
US ED has stated publicly that it believes that folding OELA into OESE will allow the Department’s work regarding English Learners to be more fully integrated into its ongoing K-12 work. There are many in the civil rights community who are skeptical of these claims and are concerned that these moves are signal that the Trump administration is de-prioritizing efforts around the education of English Learners.
While US ED has some freedom to act unilaterally to reshape the department — and presidential administrations typically do engage in some reorganization of departments and staff within US ED — changes to certain positions created by federal law, like the director of OELA, may require Congressional approval.
What is OELA?
The Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), an office within the United States Department of Education (US ED), was created during the George W. Bush administration. OELA exists to ensure that English Learners and immigrant students attain English proficiency and achieve academic success.
To accomplish these goals, OELA engages in five main activities:
Providing national leadership by informing policy decisions
Administering discretionary grant programs to prepare professionals for teaching and supporting English Learners
Investing in research and evaluation studies that have practical applications for preparing English Learners to meet college and career learning standards
Disseminating information about educational research, practices, and policies for English Learners through the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA)
One example of OELA’s work is an “English Learner Tool Kit” that it developed to help state and local education agencies better understand and fulfill their legal duties with respect to the education of English Learners. Another example is a $2.6 million grant it awarded the University of Missouri-St. Louis to support and train the educators who teach English Learners. OELA also synthesizes and provides key demographic data about English Learners, including information about the languages they speak, the counties where they reside, and information about the racial and ethnic makeup of English Learners across the country.
This past February, US ED proposed a sweeping restructure of its operations, including plans to incorporate OELA into the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE). In May, US ED announced it wants to merge OESE with the Office for Innovation and Improvement (OII).
At present, it’s unclear how or whether OELA would perform their current duties if OELA is merged into OESE, and if OESE is then merged with OII. These announcements came at least partly in response to presidential Executive Order 13781, which requires the leaders of federal agencies to “reorganize the agency, if appropriate, in order to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of that agency.
Following US ED’s announcement, a coalition of civil rights groups wrote to Secretary DeVos in May to express their opposition to the proposed merger. Later that month, approximately 30 Democrats from both chambers of Congress issued a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that opposed US ED’s plans for OELA on the grounds that it would undermine the federal government’s role in ensuring equity for English Learners. At that time, the director of OELA, José Viana stated that US ED was still considering the value of dissolving OELA into OESE, and was interested in hearing feedback on its proposal.
A few weeks after the civil rights groups submitted their letter to US ED, the United States Senate, on a narrow 50-48 vote, confirmed Mitchell “Mick” Zais as the Deputy Secretary of Education. Following his confirmation, Deputy Secretary Zais has engaged in a bit of correspondence with the the civil rights groups regarding US ED’s plans for ESSA. In these letters, he has affirmed that US ED will fulfill its legal obligations regarding the education of English Learners and that OELA will fulfill its obligations under federal statute.
The Future of OELA
It is unclear what plans, if any, US ED has to obtain public comment on its plans for ESSA or to seek Congressional input or approval. US ED has not announced any plans to publish an announcement on the matter in the Federal Register and there are no details at the moment regarding Congressional oversight or approval of this process.
The Fate of the Education Department’s English Learners Office (Politico, August 10)
DeVos May Bypass Congress to Get Rid of the Office for English-Learners. Can She? (Education Week, August 6)
How Have States Set Goals for English Learners in ESSA Plans? (Achieve and UnidosUS, May 30)
- New Proposal Puts the Federal Office For English Learners in Jeopardy (New America, May 11)
Be a Part of the Process
Learn more about the programs and initiatives within the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) and the educational research, and information on practices and policies that it makes available through the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA).
Use the Migration Policy Institute’s new report, A Guide to Finding and Understanding English Learner Data, to learn more about how English Learners are faring in your state, your districts, and your school.
Contact officials in OELA and/or officials in OESE and/or about US ED’s plans for OELA, and how and when they plan to obtain public input on those changes. Here is an organizational chart of US ED to help guide your advocacy.
Call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-2311 to speak with your members of Congress about US ED’s plans to dissolve the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) into the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) and about Congressional oversight of these changes.
Take Local Action
- Contact members of your state’s legislature regarding their position on how your state’s ESSA Plan sets high standards for English Learners and meets ESSA’s statutory requirements.
- Contact your state educational agency (SEA) and local school board about these matters.
- Convene a meeting in your school or district about how to better support English Learners.