If you think it is important that public schools across the United States serve all children, you would likely prefer that the U.S. Department of Education NOT eliminate its Office of English Language Acquisition.
Here is how that Office describes its mission: “The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) provides national leadership to help ensure that English Learners and immigrant students attain English proficiency and achieve academic success. In addition to preserving heritage languages and cultures, OELA is committed to prompting opportunities for biliteracy or multiliteracy skills for all students.”
This is an enlightened mission statement in a couple of ways. First, it demonstrates that someone in our government has committed to preserving the “heritage” languages and cultures of American Indian students. Someone, in creating this office, believed it important formally to contravene the colonialist idea that we ought to strip language and culture from the many indigenous peoples—what was once a formal policy of promoting the enrollment of these children in boarding schools intended to help them forget the languages and cultures of their families.
Second, the Office of English Language Acquisition, by its very name, clearly endorses the teaching of English, but the mission statement endorses the goal of biliteracy or multiliteracy. In other words, the Office of English Language Acquisition has endorsed the notion of language gain rather than language loss—acknowledging that in our multicultural country and our connected world, knowing and speaking more than one language is an asset.
No wonder Betsy DeVos’s and Donald Trump’s Department of Education is trying to eliminate the Office of English Language Acquisition. This is the administration that has been separating young children and toddlers from their parents at the border and institutionalizing the children. It is also the administration that has been persistently trying to eliminate DACA—the program protecting from deportation the young adults born elsewhere, brought to the U.S. as infants and young children, and raised in our neighborhoods and educated in our public schools. Fortunately the courts continue to block the president’s order to end DACA.
Education Week‘s Corey Mitchell reports: “The U.S. Department of Education is forging ahead with plans to scrap the federal office of English-language acquisition—perhaps without seeking congressional approval or public comment on the proposal… Several groups contacted by Education Week insist that Deputy Education Secretary Mick Zais has sidestepped their questions about whether the department will get the OK from Congress before enacting the proposal—which would fold the office of English-language acquisition, or OELA, into the office for elementary and secondary education. The plan would also eliminate the director’s position for OELA, a job currently held by Jose Viana. Federal law requires that OELA have a director who reports directly to the education secretary. So it appears, at least on the surface, that DeVos would need the approval of Congress to enact the plan.”
A prominent coalition of advocates for the preservation of the Office of English Language Acquisition sent a letter of protest to Assistant Education Secretary of Education Mitchell Zais. The following organizations were signatories: American Federation of Teachers, American Association of Teachers of German, The ASPIRA Association, Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, California Association for Bilingual Education, Californians Together, Center for Applied Linguistics, The Education Neuroscience Foundation, the Global Institute for Language and Literacy Development, Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, Joint National Committee for Languages, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy-Migration Policy Institute, National Association for Bilingual Education, National Council for Languages and International Studies, National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association, TESOL International Association, and UnidosUS.
More recently, Zais responded to their questions but failed to address their concerns. Mitchell reports: “In a July 26 letter where Zais responded to questions from the coalition, he wrote that the Education Department has worked closely with the other federal agencies, including the office of Management and Budget, to ensure the reorganization of OELA is done in accordance with the law and an executive order from President Donald Trump that seeks to remake the executive branch, mainly by finding programs and perhaps whole agencies that could be eliminated. In that same letter, Zais also implied that the Education Department has already solicited public comment on the OELA proposal through a federal steering committee on agency restructuring.”
Mitchell quotes David Cutler, policy and communications director for TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) International Association: “We hope that this does not signal that the administration thinks English learners are no longer a priority.”
In an earlier report, Corey Mitchell quoted Kim Miller, director of English-learner programs for the state of Oregon on the role of the federal Office on English Language Acquisition: “OELA provides guidance on policy decisions, handles grants that help prepare educators to work with ELLs, and invests in and distributes research through the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. If those services are scaled down, state ELL offices can’t fill the gaps.”
Federal law requires that public schools provide English language instruction to all children whose primary languages are not English. Here is some history. In 1968, Congress added the Bilingual Education Act to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which had been passed in 1965. ESEA had embodied the philosophy of providing additional resources through Title I for school districts serving children in poverty; the Bilingual Education Act added Title VII, providing federal aid for English Language Learners, better training for their teachers, and support for parent involvement. Then in 1974, in Lau v. Nichols, a case originating in San Francisco, parent plaintiffs argued that although mastery of English was required for high school graduation, their children were not receiving special language instruction. This U.S. Supreme Court decision guaranteed the right, codified in the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, to instruction in English for students whose primary language is not English.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2014, 9.4 percent of public school students (4.6 million) in the United States were English language learners: “Spanish was the home language of 3.7 million ELL students in 2014-15, representing 77.1 percent of all ELL students and 7.6 percent of all public K-12 students. Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese were the next most common home languages (spoken by approximately 109,000, 104,000 and 85,300 students, respectively.” In 2009, the National Council of La Raza estimated that 91 percent of Latino children under age 18 living within U.S. borders are U.S. citizens.
Protecting the rights of students in marginalized groups and providing leadership for meeting their needs is a primary responsibility of the U.S. Department of Education. The elimination of the Department of Education’s Office for English Language Acquisition would be one more indicator of the Trump administration’s disdain for immigrant students and for millions of other students whose primary language is not English.