Students play games in English in a program for children learning English as their second language
Photo: Greg Lynch
Photo: Greg Lynch

Opinion: DeVos plan jeopardizes English language learner programs

Janet Turner is a teacher in DeKalb County. In this guest column, she urges the U.S. Department of Education to preserve the Office of English Language Acquisition

As a teacher in Georgia’s English to Speakers of Other Languages or ESOL program, Turner serves English language learners from all over the world and says she relies on the federal office for current research on best practices to better help students.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is considering eliminating the director and moving the office under the control of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Sharing the concerns of teachers like Turner are many children’s and education advocacy groups, 18 of which signed a letter to DeVos stating:

Rather than diminishing the role of Office of English Language Acquisition. by subsuming it in a much larger organization, where it would be forced to compete for resources and attention, we believe that the present time affords an opportunity to strengthen OELA, building on several strands of fine work started under President George W. Bush.

With that background, here is Turner’s essay:

By Janet Turner

While people around the country are raising their voices to stop the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy that separates immigrant children from their parents, another tragedy is quietly transpiring behind the walls of the U.S. Department of Education. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed a restructuring plan that would eliminate the director's position for the Office of English Language Acquisition and merge that department’s functions into the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

English language learners have unique educational needs that require specialized services and well-trained professionals. Eliminating the Office of English Language Acquisition would deprive these students of the focused support they need to succeed academically and fully participate in society. Depriving children of an equitable education is nearly as tragic as tearing them from their parents’ arms. 

English language learners are the fastest growing segment of the school-aged population in this country. There are nearly 5 million students that qualify for language acquisition services. They are present in all 50 states and are active members of over 90,000 school communities. Although the majority of these students speak Spanish, they also speak more than 150 other languages. 

This cultural and linguistic diversity is an asset that should be cultivated, not a nuisance that can be overlooked in an attempt to streamline the Department of Education. If this restructuring is another attempt to crack down on illegal immigration, someone should remind the current administration that more than 70 percent of English language learners are legal citizens.

We are legally obligated to provide a quality education to English language learners. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in all federally funded programs. The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 provides funds for and recognizes the unique educational needs of non-English speaking students. In the 1974 Lau v. Nichols case, the Supreme Court decided that schools must take steps to overcome language barriers in order to provide an equal education for all students. 

In 1982, Plyler v. Doe made it illegal to deny undocumented children a free public education. To be in compliance with Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, school districts must provide services to English language learners that are grounded in recognized educational theory, utilize effective instructional practices, and produce results that show improved language proficiency.

We are also morally obligated to ensure that all children in this country are given an equitable opportunity to reach their full potential in school and as members of society. If the Office of English Language Acquisition is dismantled, 5 million students and all their teachers will lose their voice at the national level. 

This silencing will trickle down to state and local governments because these entities follow the federal government’s lead in prioritizing educational funding and programming. The office annually distributes $1 billion in federal grants to support research, district programs, professional development for educators, tutorial programs for students, and community-based organizations that support social and academic development for English language learners. This funding source may be dispersed to other programs if the Office of English Language Acquisition is subsumed into a larger, less focused agency. Another valuable resource for educating English language learners may be in danger as well. 

The National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition —which collects, synthesizes, and disseminates research and data about educational practices and accountability systems for English language learners — could be impacted if the office it supports is abolished. Educators and all those who care for and support children who are learning English need these valuable resources to deliver the quality education these special learners deserve.

Some may say it is unnecessary to provide special services to help children learn English, that they should be forced to learn it on their own through immersion the way previous generations of immigrants to this country did. I would argue that we can do better. We can and should create learning environments that respect students’ cultures, languages, and individual strengths. We should use empirical data and the principles of social justice to inform our educational decision-making, not budgetary excuses or political rhetoric. I agree with the coalition of 18 language advocacy groups that sent a letter to Secretary DeVos in May urging her to reconsider. 

Now is not the time to restructure the Office of English Language Acquisition. Instead, by securing it, we can secure a more promising future for the growing population of English language learners in the United States. 



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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.