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DeVos May Bypass Congress to Get Rid of the Office for English-Learners. Can She?

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The U.S. Department of Education is forging ahead with plans to scraps the federal office of English-language acquisition—perhaps without seeking congressional approval or public comment on the proposal.

A coalition of English-language-learner advocates fears the department is headed that way, based on their correspondence with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' top deputy.

"The threat is real," said Rebeca Shackleford, an education policy analyst with UnidosUS.

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 José 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.

Zais' recent communications haven't made that clear.

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.

"We hope that this does not signal that the administration thinks English-learners are no longer a priority," said David Cutler, policy and communications director for TESOL International Association, the organization for teachers who specialize in working with English-learners

Department of Education officials have argued that restructuring OELA would allow the agency to merge support for English-learners with services provided to other vulnerable student groups. It's a move ELL advocates say would work against the best interests of such students.

In his July 26 response, Zais wrote: "The Department is committed to upholding the law and protections put in place for ELs and will continue to do so under any reorganization. OELA will continue to fulfill its statutory obligations."

Some English-learner advocates are not convinced.

"Our letter has really not been responded to," said Santiago Wood, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. "We don't expect to get any specifics. We're at a standstill now."

Here's a look at the questions that the coalition has put to Zais and his responses.

   Zais OELA Reorganization Response Letter by corey_c_mitchell on Scribd

   Zais OELA Letter by corey_c_mitchell on Scribd

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos addresses the Council of the Great City Schools annual legislative policy conference in Washington in 2017. --Jose Luis Magana/AP

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