June 8

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations for English Learners

This Newsbrief gives our sense of important and timely federal educational news within this process and protest context:

To advance educational excellence and equity, we must prioritize the needs of our most vulnerable students and communities. To accomplish this goal, we need clear processes for the development of policy, and we need to take into account opposition to current and proposed policies and practices — protestas a healthy part of those processes.  


The Issue

There are roughly 5 million English learner (EL) students in this country’s K-12 public schools. ELs comprise almost 10 percent of the total K-12 student population in the United States as well as roughly 23 percent of the preschool age children in the U.S.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to provide the public with a greater amount of information than its predecessor, known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), about the academic achievement of English learners (ELs) and how they are progressing towards English proficiency. ESSA requires states to set long-term goals for ELs and measure their interim progress towards those goals.

The regular reporting of student data is one of the responsibilities that states, school districts, and schools must fulfill in exchange for federal financial assistance. ESSA requires that states submit required information to the United States Department of Education (US ED), generally via a “consolidated state plan,” for approval. A state can only receive federal funding under ESSA once US ED has approved the information contained in that state’s plan.

Many State ESSA Plans Fall Short
A growing number of analyses by private-sector groups are finding that more than half of the states in our country have set academic expectations lower for English learners than for other student groups. At least seven states’ plans appear to openly flout ESSA statutory requirements pertaining to English learners. Perhaps most telling, roughly 20 percent of states currently have school rating systems that allow schools to achieve the highest possible rating even if the English learners in those schools are not doing well.

US ED Wants to End its Office of English Language Acquisition
It is in this context that US ED has informed the U.S. House of Representatives (the House) and the U.S. Senate that it wants to end its Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA). OELA was created during the George W. Bush administration to “help ensure that English Learners and immigrant students attain English proficiency and achieve academic success.” The current presidential administration intends to incorporate OELA into another office, the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE); US ED has also announced it wants to merge OESE with the Office for Innovation and Improvement (OII). It is at present time unclear how or whether current  OELA would perform their current duties if OELA is merged into OESE, and if OESE is then merged with OII.  A coalition of civil rights groups have already publicly expressed their opposition to this proposed merger.

US ED’s plans would also eliminate the position of director of OELA, a position required by federal statute. While US ED has some freedom to act unilaterally to reshape the department, changes to certain positions created by federal law, like the director of OELA, may require Congressional approval.


The Process:

English Learners in State ESSA Plans
Every state in the country has submitted a consolidated ESSA state plan to US ED, and US ED has been approving state plans on a rolling basis. Forty-six states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have been approved as of the date of this newsbrief. US ED has yet to approve only the state plans from California, Oklahoma, and Utah.

Civil Rights groups have publicly stated their concerns that US ED has been approving state plans that are not in compliance with ESSA’s requirements. In a recent appearance before a House committee, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reiterated her belief that all approved state plans are in compliance with federal statutory requirements. A big test is looming for US ED’s tolerance for creative state-level interpretations of federal law: Florida’s state plan and waiver request appear to openly contravene several of ESSA’s requirements.

The Future of OELA
Democrats in the House and Senate have published a letter to Secretary DeVos expressing their opposition to the proposed merger of OELA with OESE, and citing the authorization of OELA in federal law. For their part, officials in the Trump Administration are working to implement 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.” The current director of OELA, José Viana, has stated that US ED is still considering the value of dissolving OELA into OESE, and is interested in hearing feedback on its proposal.

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Related Materials from Partners for Each and Every Child:

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