Friday, May 11, 2018

DeVos's Rationale for Eliminating the Federal Office for English Language Learners Ignores a Major Point

Education Week reports that Betsy DeVos is considering scrapping the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA).  The work of this office would be subsumed by the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, which administers a broad range of federal education programs. As the title of OELA suggests, this office is devoted exclusively to the fastest growing student populations in the country—English Language Learners (ELL).  Public schools enroll more than 5 million ELL students.

DeVos argues that this consolidation would lead to more efficient administration of federal programs.  According to her spokeswoman, "The department is in the early stages of considering how best to break down silos, improve policy and program coordination and ensure all students have the support, attention and resources they deserve from the department."

From the DeVos’s perspective, this is about bureaucracy.  From those advocacy groups opposing the consolidation, this is about which is office is likely to do a better job.

Both of those arguments go to a level of detail that the average person might struggle to evaluate.  Let me offer a more simple framing.

English Language Learners hold a unique place in federal education law.  Schools owe ELLs, along with students with disabilities, an affirmative obligation.  In 1974, Congress passed the Equal Educational Opportunities Act.  The Act makes it unlawful for schools to fail to take “appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs.”

Most people are relatively familiar with the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).  It, similarly, requires schools to create individualized education plans and support services for students with disabilities.  The point is that these students face unique education barriers and schools must take affirmative steps to help them overcome them.

Under federal law, schools owe no such specific duty to African American students, poor students, academically struggling students, or any number of other students at risk of academic failure.  That why there aren't special offices for them, but there are for students with disabilities.  What would we say if DeVos proposed eliminating the Office of Special Education Programs, which “is dedicated to improving results for infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities ages birth through 21”? 

These affirmative obligations also mean that monitoring programs in regard to disability and language status are different than others.  With race and sex, for instance, the federal government is most concerned with discrimination.  Did the school treat a student differently because of race or gender?  Does the school maintain a policy that produces radically different outcomes for students based on race or gender, but which the school cannot offer a good reason?  So long as they don’t do those things, the federal government leaves schools alone.

Schools might very well discriminate against students with disabilities or language barriers (due to their ethnicity).  If they do, departments like the Office for Civil Rights will treat those problems much like they would a race or sex claim.

But everything else that schools do or don’t do for students with disabilities or language barriers raises the question of whether schools are doing enough to help these students succeed at the level of their peers.  This is a much different—and much more complicated—question.  This is why agencies create specific offices and hire specific staff with highly specialized expertise to assist schools. 

Yes, this may create bureaucracy—which DeVos doesn’t like—but it is bureaucracy for a reason.  And in this respect, it does not fit very well in her overall narrative about the need to shrink government.  

    --on Twitter @DerekWBlack

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