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English-Learners Need Federal Commission, Suggests MALDEF Chief

Thomas A. Saenz, the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, said today that he believes that English-language learners—the fastest growing subgroup of students in public schools—deserve heightened attention from the federal government, akin to the Equity and Excellence Commission, a three-year-long effort to address the entrenched achievement gaps between poor students and their more affluent peers.

Saenz, who served on the 27-member equity commission, said that the federal panel didn't address equity issues specific to English-learners, in part because it didn't have the "right set" of commissioners. He went on to say that "there really is a need to address how to govern a federal system for ELLs when you have these students in every single state." Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act authorizes about $732 million in federal aid to states and local districts for English-language-acquisition programs. The U.S. Department of Education is responsible for ensuring that Title III funds for English-learners are used to "supplement" and not "supplant" state and local funding sources for services for students who are learning English.

Saenz made his remarks about English-learners at a Washington event today that was focused on a new school equity report from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

At the same event, David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center and a prominent litigator on school funding equity cases, said that in most states the true needs of English-learners are not reflected in funding formulas. New Jersey, where his law center is based, is one of the few states that provides a "weight" for ELL students that is close to reflecting what it costs to meaningfully teach English-learners. There, schools receive anywhere from $4,000-$5,000 in additional funds (on top of a baseline amount of about $9,000 per student) for each English-learner they enroll, he said.

Many advocates for English-learners and directors of state and district language-acquisition services have long said that federal Title III dollars fall well short of providing funds that accurately reflect the numbers of ELLs that states and districts serve. Because of the wide variation in how ELLs are defined and classified across states, the U.S. Department of Education uses census data rather than state-reported counts of enrolled ELLs to determine levels of Title III aid. California, for example, gets funding for the roughly 1 million English-learners who are captured by census data collected through the American Community Survey, rather than the 1.4 million actually enrolled in its public schools. (Efforts underway to forge a common definition of English-learners across states are expected to help deal with that issue.)

This Title III funding issue might be one of many that a commission as envisioned by Saenz might examine.

ADDENDUM: It turns out that Title III state allocations have already been the subject of a federally-commissioned study. An eagle-eyed reader brought to my attention a 2011 National Research Council study on this very issue. The recommendations from the panel that the Ed. Dept. not just rely on the American Community Survey census data, but also consider state-reported counts of students who are not proficient in English when assessed on annual exams, were included in legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. That bill, of course, went nowhere.

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