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Trump and DeVos: What Could the New Administration Spell for English Learner and Immigrant Students?
March 2017

Trump and DeVos: What Could the New Administration Spell for English Learner and Immigrant Students?

_BetsyDeVos CPAC
Gage Skidmore

Betsy DeVos was narrowly confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education on February 7, 2017 despite widespread concerns ranging from her lack of experience in public education to worries about her beliefs regarding vouchers and charter schools, religious education, and accountability for the education of traditionally underserved children. Her selection and President Trump’s immigration enforcement-focused executive orders have left many parents and educators wondering how the new administration’s policies will impact students from immigrant families and the schools that serve them. The simple answer is: It depends on the actions of state and local policymakers where those students live.

Right to enroll. Longstanding federal court rulings uphold the right of all students to a free, public education (as affirmed by the Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe) and the requirement to provide English Learners (ELs) with supplementary services that enable them to access meaningful instruction (as affirmed in Lau v. Nichols). The Plyler ruling has led to policies intended to encourage families to feel safe enrolling their children in school, including, most notably, the prohibition on school officials asking about immigration status. However, there are many schools and districts where those policies are not consistently communicated, especially to front-office staff who are the first point of contact for enrollment.

Incidents such as last week’s arrest of an unauthorized immigrant as he dropped off his daughter at her Los Angeles school have heightened concerns expressed by educators in recent months that parents are afraid to send their children to school or to go there themselves. In response, a number of school districts have created or reaffirmed policies to prevent immigration enforcement from taking place on school campuses. Such local actions aim to maintain a welcoming environment for immigrant children so that they can access the education to which they are entitled, but it is not yet known whether those policies will be enforceable.

Vouchers and charters. Many educators are concerned about the new administration’s desire to expand charter schools and the use of vouchers, as President Trump called for in his February 28 address to Congress. These critics argue that school choice leads to increased segregation by race and by student characteristics (including EL status), and that the way that charter schools are funded starves local public school districts of resources—an especially critical problem in places where traditional public schools educate a larger share of students with the most intensive educational needs.

Expanding programs to increase charter schools or to allow parents to use tax dollars to pay for tuition at private schools would require the support of Congress and the cooperation of states. An incentive for states to implement a voucher system would require congressional appropriations, and states have their own rules about charters and vouchers that would govern whether and how they could expand those types of programs. Nevertheless, it should not be assumed that Democratic-leaning states and localities would automatically resist initiatives being championed by the Republican administration and Congress. The expansion of charter schools proliferated under the Obama administration; robust charter school programs exist in the traditional Democratic strongholds of Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC; and Maryland recently enacted a voucher program for students in low-income families.

Accountability. The 2002 and 2015 reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—both of which passed with bipartisan support—included provisions for evaluating school and district effectiveness based on the degree to which standardized test scores improved for all students and for specific groups of students such as ELs. Under the 2015 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states have gained flexibility on how they will hold school districts accountable for improving student outcomes and reducing systematic achievement gaps. Although accountability is just one piece of a larger school improvement puzzle, advocates for traditionally underserved student groups are expressing concern over attempts to roll back these policies.

In fact, the House of Representatives has already voted to overturn regulations on state accountability plans, and the Senate was poised to consider similar legislation. It is too soon to know the effects of such a repeal, but with ESSA already handing over most authority for assessment and accountability to the states, it will be up to states to decide how strongly committed they will be to using accountability mechanisms to continue to shine a spotlight on educational inequities for ethnic/racial minorities, ELs, and other groups.

Funding. Education advocates have also voiced concern that the Trump administration will cut or change the nature of federal education spending. The federal government’s overall contribution to education revenue is fairly small—8.7 percent in 2013-14. However, deep cuts to or a restructuring of Title I, which sends supplementary funds to districts with high percentages of low-income students and is the largest component of the federal K-12 education budget, could impact schools serving large numbers of immigrant and refugee students. Federal Title III funds for the education of ELs (the majority of whom are U.S. born) and recent immigrants play an important role in ensuring that districts have targeted funds for activities such as teacher professional development, instructional materials, and extra instructional time after school or in the summer. Therefore, ELs could be directly affected by cuts to the annual appropriation for Title III state grants, which has averaged about $737 million annually in recent years.

The critical importance of federal funds notwithstanding, when it comes to everyday instruction for ELs, states and localities provide the greatest share of funding, and therefore play the most important role in ensuring that adequate resources are in place to meet student needs. A recent Migration Policy Institute report described the nature of such funding, noting that dollars for ELs are frequently allocated without adequate cost consideration and that EL education is also affected by the larger context of inequitable and inadequate funding for public schools. It is worth noting that funding inequities plague states that are traditionally Democrat-led, such as New York State, which has still not fully complied with a decade-old legal ruling declaring its funding system unconstitutional.

Civil rights. Finally, advocates are concerned about the future of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education and the Educational Opportunities Section of the Civil Rights Division in the U.S. Department of Justice. These two offices took on a more active role in the Obama administration than under previous presidents in terms of addressing desegregation and violations of EL students’ rights to effective services. The Department of Education’s OCR also expanded data-collection efforts to highlight ongoing disparities in access and outcomes for a variety of underserved populations. Although state governments might not be able to assume the type of civil-rights oversight that the federal government provides, states could put into place policies, funding, and accountability processes that protect ELs and promote equitable access to education. These include policies and robust training around student enrollment that comply with Plyler v. Doe, teacher certification requirements that include training for teachers on working with ELs, and technical assistance for districts that are struggling to implement research-based instructional models to meet their students’ needs.

The weighty issues enumerated above may have lasting impacts on generations of immigrant-background families and communities. However, states have the wherewithal through their own policies and practices to mitigate cuts to funding, attempts to use school choice to weaken traditional public education, and reduced oversight on civil rights. As states complete work on the ESSA accountability plans, it is incumbent on the public to ensure that states follow through on their responsibility to provide a high-quality education to all students.