Reorganization at U.S. Department of Education May Eliminate Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA)


The Trump administration’s proposal for a major overhaul of the organizational structure at the U.S. Department of Education (USED) includes the eventual elimination of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), rolling it into the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE). Doing this could compromise any singular focus at USED on students learning English as a second language (or third, etc.). This is because it combines all English learner (EL) programs administered by USED into the USED office where the largest funding stream that focuses on academics is located. OESE houses the Office of State Support (OSS), which is where Title I and other academic focused federal education programs reside. In the federal education funding world, Title I is the tail that wags the dog.

Over the years there has been a gradual shift away from promoting bilingualism to a focus on making sure that students that don’t speak English learn to do so. This was most clearly seen in the move that renamed USED’s Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs (OBEMLA - established in 1974 by Congress) to the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA). This happened shortly after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001. At that time, USED policy shifted from embracing bilingualism to shying away from it, focusing instead on teaching non-English speaking students to become proficient in English.

At the same time, some hailed NCLB’s inclusion of formula and competitive funding streams that were solely for English Learner programs (Title III) as a good thing. This is because it brought attention to ELs, an overlooked and under-served student subgroup. And while bringing attention to this group is a good thing, since then, there has been a subtle hint of efforts going on behind the scenes to phase out OELA. One piece of evidence was the move in October of 2008 that combined the administration of the formula grant funding for Title III into the OESE. This left OELA to administer the competitive grants, which is only a small fraction of the funding allocated under Title III (about one tenth of the total Title III allocation). This effectively reduced the power and importance of OELA in the overall hierarchy at USED.

Now, amidst the Trump administration’s anti-immigration efforts, OELA could be eliminated completely. Although the changes proposed won’t immediately merge OELA into OESE, the proposed USED reorganization has this as an event that will eventually take place (for more info, click here).

Combining the programs for English language proficiency into the USED office with academic programs for “English” (i.e. reading/language arts) may add to the confusion that persists regarding the difference between language proficiency in English vs. academic proficiency in the content are of reading/language arts. There has been so much confusion related to the difference between academic English – reading/language arts and English language proficiency that USED included a question that specifically addressed this issue in its September 2016 guidance related to English learners. This is addressed in Question B-5 on page 17of that document.

B-5. What is the difference between English language proficiency standards and content standards in reading/language arts?

Reading/language arts standards are not the same as English language proficiency standards. English language proficiency standards should be specifically developed for students who are ELs and define progressive levels of competence in the acquisition of the English language. English language proficiency standards must be derived from the four language domains of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. (ESEA Section 1111(b)(1)(F)). Reading/language arts standards, on the other hand, describe what all students should know and be able to do in the specific academic content area of reading/language arts.

What’s next?

Expect an outcry from immigration and EL advocacy groups against the elimination of OELA. Most immigration and EL advocacy groups want to see OELA strengthened, not eliminated or rolled into an office where the focus is academic programs.

Dr. David Holbrook

About The Author

Dr. David Holbrook is a nationally recognized leader in federal programs administration and monitoring with expertise in Title I, Title III, Native American Education, and Federal Programs. Dr. Holbrook has also worked as a consultant with Title III of the US Department of Education and now serves as Executive Director, Federal Compliance and State Relationships with TransAct.