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Is Congress Lagging in Nationwide Push for Language Learning?

Since the seal of biliteracy was introduced in California earlier this decade, its popularity has surged in states across the country.

But a federal bill that would fund U.S. Department of Education grants to help states and school districts establish and strengthen programs has repeatedly sputtered in Congress.

As a state legislator in California, now-U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley authored the legislation that established the state's seal of biliteracy in 2011, but hasn't had similar success on Capitol Hill.

Since she came to Congress in 2013, Brownley's Biliteracy Education Seal and Teaching (BEST) Act has largely been ignored. The legislation would establish federal grants, $10 million annually from fiscal 2020 through fiscal 2024, to cover the administrative costs of setting up and administering a seal of biliteracy program, as well as for public outreach.

Prospects for this measure moving forward remain slim, especially with a $40 million price tag.

A 2017 report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences' Commission on Language Learning—commissioned by Congress to determine how language learning influences economic growth, diplomacy, and the productivity of future generations—found that public schools and state departments of education have struggled to find qualified world language instructors and are unequipped to track local and national trends on language learning.

Despite the alarms raised in the study, no federal legislation has emerged to address those issues.

For her part, Brownley had hoped to attach the BEST Act to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2015. When that fell through, so did any likelihood of the bill making its way through Congress, said Bill Rivers, the executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies.

"Unfortunately, when that reauthorization was occurring, bilingual education was not a huge priority," Brownley said.

Times have changed. Shifting demographics and political dynamics have transformed views on multilingual education in many parts of the country in the time since, paving the way for a closer examination of how the nation's 5 million K-12 English-learners are educated and the importance of foreign-language instruction.

Now, students in 36 states and the District of Columbia can earn recognition noting their skills in more than one language. But the seals are a patchwork of policies and standards, with little consistency from state to state.

"It should be a federal priority," Rivers said. "But it's not clear what the legislative vehicle would be for that."

Language-learning advocates are celebrating a potential breakthrough: a world languages amendment tucked into the U.S. House defense bill that passed this month would create a grant program to establish or expand world language programs in K-12 Department of Defense schools and school districts that host a Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) program.

The U.S. Senate passed its own version of the defense bill earlier this summer without the World Language Advancement and Readiness Act included, which means there is no guarantee the amendment will be included in the final version of the bill.

Related Reading

As More States Adopt Bilingualism Seal, Equity Concerns Arise

Who's Earning the Seal of Biliteracy? In One State, It's Mostly English-Learners

Will Every State Offer Special Recognition for Its Bilingual Graduates?

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