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A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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English Language Learners in Rep. Kline's Student Success Act

Published:  June 18, 2013

The parade of bills that could replace No Child Left Behind continues this week with Wednesday’s markup of Rep. John Kline’s (R-MN) version. All signals suggest that this won’t be the year Congress finally updates the nation’s most comprehensive education law—and the substantial differences between Kline’s and Sen. Tom Harkin’s bills have a lot to do with these dim prospects. We’ve already seen what Harkin’s Strengthening America’s Schools Act would mean for English Language Learners (ELLs). Today we’ll take a similar look at Kline’s bill, the Student Success Act (SSA).

The biggest change, bar none, is that Kline, Chair of the House’s Education and Workforce Committee, would eliminate Title III entirely. As big as that sounds, it would mostly be an organizational move. As the bill’s summary puts it: “The bill maintains separate funding streams for...English Language Acquisition [programs], but merges them into Title I.” The bill would freeze funds designated for ELLs at $732 million—equivalent to Title III’s FY 2012 budget. This is a considerably stronger commitment to ELLs than the Senate GOP's bill, even if the freeze in funding amounts to a slow decrease by means of inflation.

So: if the funding and the purpose remain largely the same, why bother subsuming Title III funds within Title I? What’s in a name? That which we call Title III by any other name would support ELLs, right?

Maybe. The move is designed to “encourage greater alignment” between ELL programs and other Title I objectives. This seems like an idea with potential. By definition, policies that separate ELLs from the rest of the student population treat them unequally—they have unique needs that require different supports. The danger is that targeted supports can also segregate groups of students. In other words, policies that designate services for particular sets of students risk establishing alternate systems, expectations, and educational opportunities for these students. As a matter of principle, we should always seek ways to incorporate ELL initiatives with other Title I supports for high-need schools and students. Done right, Kline’s bill could make this sort of coordination easier.

As part of this approach, SSA offers states considerable flexibility for using federal funds. Despite asking the Secretary of Education to set aside hundreds of millions of Title I money specifically for helping ELLs develop English proficiency, Kline’s bill would allow states to use money they receive for ELLs for a number of other purposes. There is much to recommend Kline’s approach. Ideally, flexibility would allow states to tailor their funding to suit the needs of their student populations.

Here’s the problem: Kline’s bill would 1) retain federal assessment and data collection requirements on ELL progress, 2) require the Secretary of Education to report on national ELL progress twice as frequently, but without 3) requiring states to spend any federal funds specifically targeted to improve these students’ English proficiency. Here's a chart version:

At best, this is odd. Why ask the Secretary of Education to grant funds for ELLs if states are free to use the funds for other purposes? At worst, it’s risky. Can states be counted on to invest in their ELL populations of their own accord? Even given the importance of investing in young ELL children, there is little reason to believe that all states will make this a priority on their own. (For more on the increasing importance of American ELL and immigrant children in the coming decades, see today’s New America event with Dowell Myers: “An America With Fewer Children.”)


NOTE: For live-tweeting of tomorrow’s ESEA markup, follow Anne Hyslop (@afhyslopand me (@conorpwilliams) on Twitter.

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