COMMENTARY: President Biden Proposes the Largest Increase in Federal Funding for English Learners, Here’s What Else Congress Can Do 

Six-year-old Valentina Palomares is a first-grade English learner in Tucson, AZ. She’s struggling to get the support she needs online to keep up with the class. Photo by Lydia Palomares.

Kendall Evans, Education Policy Analyst, UnidosUS and Roxanne Garza, Education Policy Advisor, UnidosUS  

Just prior to the Memorial Day weekend, President Biden released his long-awaited budget, the first full budget plan of his presidency. The president’s ambitious proposal would increase the U.S. Department of Education’s discretionary budget by roughly 41%, totaling $102.8 billion for Fiscal Year 2022. The most significant proposed increases in the budget are targeted for new programs, such as a new Title I Equity Grants program and a School-Based Health Professionals program, but some existing programs are also slated for increases, including the federal program for English learners (ELs)—Title III of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). 

The proposal includes $917 million for Title III which, if enacted, would be the highest amount to date for this program, although still insufficient to meet the academic needs of ELs in these unprecedented times. 

The EL student population in U.S. public schools has been on the rise, growing nearly 30% between 2000 and 2018. As of 2018, the latest federal reported data, there are five million ELs enrolled in public schools— four million, or 77%, are Latino. However, federal funding over the years has failed to keep up with the growth of ELs in our nation’s schools, and the extent of interrupted learning experienced by ELs during the pandemic makes it even more imperative that adequate federal resources reach them. 

Federal funding has been relatively flat since the enactment of Title III under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Funding allocations have steadily ranged from $664 million in 2002 to $737 million in 2019. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, which was signed by President Trump this past December, provided $797 million for Title III, a new threshold, but still short of ESSA’s authorized amount of $884 million. The lack of adequate Title III funding has a disproportionate impact on Latino students and other students of color who represent the majority of the EL student population. 

Research shows that ELs perform better when they have access to qualified and effective teachers, high-quality learning materials, and schools with adequate levels of financial resources. Yet, when adjusting for inflation, funding for Title III of ESSA has decreased by 12.3% since 2010 and shakes out to be less than $200 per student. Latino students, because they are overrepresented in the EL population, have borne the brunt of this—only 68% of ELs graduate from high school compared to the overall national rate of 85%, and of those who graduate, only 1.4% take college entrance exams (e.g., SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests). The lack of adequate federal funding is a structural barrier that contributes to producing racial and ethnic disparities in the nation’s education system. 

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the American Rescue Plan Act have provided much-needed relief for schools and communities throughout the country, but these relief packages provided broad funds that did not ensure that ELs, specifically, would receive additional resources to support them during this public health crisis. 

UnidosUS has consistently advocated for increasing Title III funding. In May, the organization sent a letter to Congress requesting $2 billion for Title III in FY22, which received support from over 120 organizations; published a brief sharing key statistics and stressing the need for increased funding; and testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies during Public Witness Day to reiterate the importance of increasing funding for ELs. 

It is critical moment in time to depart from incremental increases under previous administrations and make a significant and major investment in America’s EL students. In fact, during the House FY22 Budget Hearing for ED, Secretary Miguel Cardona, stating “We need to do better than ever before.”  

The Biden administration has shown that it is willing to “go big” in many critical areas, and we have applauded it for doing so. However, it is disappointing that this administration has chosen not to be more ambitious in an area that is key to achieving racial and educational equity. 

Fortunately, these students have strong champions in Congress who demonstrate that they are willing to work hard to reach the $2 billion investment that we believe is needed to put these students back on track in the classroom. 

UnidosUS will continue advocating for ELs and their families, informing policymakers of the needs of this student population, and working with leaders who understand the importance of Title III and appropriate funding levels so that ELs in public schools throughout the country can reach their full potential.  

You might also be interested in: