Anticipation in Washington, DC

By Bill Rivers


Last week, the US Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, testified before the House of Representatives, Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (a mouthful! In DC, this is shortened to the “House Labor-H Subcommittee). He was there to testify on President Biden’s proposed budget for the US Department of Education for Fiscal Year 2022. The testimony wasn’t necessarily compelling, nor the questions and answers, unless you have a particular program or issue that you’re interested in.


And, we’re interested in the issue of multilingual education and dual language schools, so my ears perked up (I had the live stream on in the background as I worked on other projects) when Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro asked: “How will the Department’s Office of English Language Acquisition work with states and districts to make sure these students are getting the support that they need?” Dr. Cardona answered, “We need to do better than ever before. We need to see a new day for our office for multilingual learners. Going back to where we were is not good enough. Early childhood education is one but language support services for students is another. There’s such a gap between the practice and the research on that. We need to go back to what we know works best, honoring and valuing the native language while uplifting the second language so we can have multilingual learners. There’s a lot of work that has to be done. I look forward to engaging with that with my sleeves rolled up because this is important work for our country.”


After four years of worrying about Washington, DC, we’re now working with a Secretary who grew up bilingual, who worked in a district with strong dual language schools, and who is on the record, in public, strongly supporting what we do. So, why “anticipation” instead of “celebration?” First and foremost, we’re still working through the COVID-19 crisis, and its impact on education will last for some time. Educators and leaders at every level will focus on getting back to a new normal, on opening schools safely, and on remediating learning loss. Secondly, educational policy making for K-12 in Washington, DC, tends to focus on Title I and services for learning disabled children. In other words, Title III – support for English Learners – isn’t always a priority. We see this in President Biden’s budget proposal, which would more than double funding for Title I, for example, but would leave Title III at the 2021 level.


So, the advocacy community anticipates that we will work hard to make Title III a priority. We know that the population of students eligible for Title III services has grown by 25% since 2001, yet the funding has declined by 10% in real dollar terms since 2008. We’ve asked the Congress to address this with a significant increase in funding. We know that testing and accountability pose real challenges, and that many states haven’t developed subject matter tests in languages other than English. We’ve asked the Congress to fund new tests as well.


Finally, you’ll recall that Secretary Cardona called out “the office of multilingual education,” as opposed to the “Office of English Language Acquisition.” Labels matter. Advocates are pressing the Congress, and working with Dr. Cardona and his leaders, to change a deficit mindset and the labels that come with it – “English Learners” versus “emerging multilingual learners,” for example. So it made me very happy indeed, to anticipate  a change in the name of OELA. Stay tuned!


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