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Congress Pushes Back Against DeVos Plan to Dissolve Federal English-Learner Office

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Democratic members of Congress are pushing back against a proposal from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' that would scrap the federal office that guides education policy and practice for millions of English-language-learner and immigrant students.

The lawmakers want DeVos to rethink a proposal that would consolidate her department's office English-language acquisition into the broader office for elementary and secondary education.

There are an estimated 5 million English-learners in public K-12 schools in the United States, and their academic proficiency and high school graduation rates lag behind those of their native English-speaking peers. English-learner advocates have concerns that DeVos' proposal would undermine efforts to improve education for an already underserved group—and members of Congress agree.

"Maintaining a separate office that addresses the unique needs of English-learners is also necessary to meet obligations under the landmark Supreme Court case (Lau v. Nichols) that ensures equal access to education for the country's ELs. Without a seat at the table, the needs of ELs are likely to be ignored," the May 24 letter to DeVos reads. "These reorganization efforts only further highlight our continued concerns about this administration's vitriolic rhetoric about individuals in this country who speak another language."

The letter comes just days after DeVos created a stir by suggesting that decisions on whether to report undocumented students to authorities rest with local communities. While DeVos later backtracked on her statement, it drew a strong rebuke from civil rights and immigration groups that argued it stoked the fears of immigrant and Spanish-speaking students in the nation's schools.

Across the nation, educators have reported that the Trump administration's immigration enforcement policies have hurt student academics, attendance, and well-being.

The Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter from Congress.

At least eight members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, signed the memo. Fourteen other U.S. senators signed as well, including both senators from California, Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris. Roughly one in four K-12 public school students in the Golden State are English-learners.

The congressional letter is the second DeVos has received this month with grave concerns about the education of the nation's English-learners. An 18-group coalition wrote to her several weeks back asking her to pour more resources into the office of English-language acquisition.

Despite the concerns of Congress and advocacy groups, the department seems ready to forge ahead with plans to scrap the office. Deputy Secretary Mick Zais responded to the coalition letter this week, outlining the department's goals. The department says the shift is part of a broader effort by DeVos and her deputies to revamp the agency.

"Once implemented, the department knows that its proposed changes will enhance department operations and leverage resources to better serve English-learner students and their families," Zais wrote to the organizations.

"I want to assure you that we are committed to maintaining an effective OELA, and complying with the law relevant to OELA, in any future organization of the department. We commend your advocacy for English-learners and all that you do on behalf of the students of our great nation."

Several advocacy groups contacted by Education Week insist that Zais' letter brushed aside their concerns.

The proposal also calls for eliminating the director's position for the English-learner office, a job currently held by José Viana. On the surface, it appears DeVos would need the approval of Congress to enact the plan because federal law requires that the office have a director who reports directly to the education secretary.

During a May 22 hearing on Capitol Hill, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijvala asked DeVos whether she would seek Congress' authorization before restructuring the office of English-language acquisition.

"Wherever the law requires change, it's up to Congress where to approve it or not," DeVos said.

Here's a copy of the congressional letter:

   Bicameral Letter to Department of Education on OELA_5.24.2018 by corey_c_mitchell on Scribd

Here's a copy of Zais' response letter to the advocacy groups:

   OELA Reorganization Coalition USED Response May 2018 (003) by corey_c_mitchell on Scribd

Related Stories

Is Betsy DeVos About to Scrap the Federal Office for English-Language Learners?

Ed. Department Focus on English-Learners Seen Waning

Trump's Immigration Policies Hurting Academics and School Attendance, Survey Finds

Photo Credit: President Donald Trump listens as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during a meeting with parents and teachers at the White House Feb. 14, 2017. The event, which included a mix of public, private, and home-school parents and educators, was the first joint appearance for Trump and DeVos since she was sworn in after a bruising confirmation process.

--Evan Vucci/AP
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