Advocates for English learners (ELs) frequently note that, for the past several decades, this group has been one of the fastest-growing student populations in U.S. schools. Indeed, there is significant evidence that today’s cohorts of American children are more linguistically diverse than they used to be. In 2018, nearly one-quarter of all U.S. children spoke a non-English language at home.

As a result, in recent years, educators, administrators, and policymakers have devoted significant new attention to these students’ needs. But one thing—perhaps the most critical thing—is missing: resources. Federal funding for English-learning students has been largely flat since 2002. What’s going on?

Federal EL Funding: A Recent History

Until the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, federal funding related to ELs was largely contained within the 1968 Bilingual Education Act, which provided grants to help districts launch educational programs to help ELs succeed at school. NCLB provided, for the first time, a federal funding stream dedicated to supporting the linguistic and academic development of every EL in the country. NCLB’s Title III promised federal grant funding that would be indexed to reflect each state’s EL student population. That is, while states with large numbers of ELs—like California, Texas, New York—would receive larger grants than states with fewer ELs, every state would receive some EL funding.1

This was a meaningful advance for these students, but it wasn’t perfect. When NCLB became law in 2002, there were around 3.77 million ELs in the United States. The law authorized up to $750 million in federal Title III funding, but Congress only appropriated $664 million that year. In other words, federal EL funding in 2002 worked out to just under $175 per EL.2

Funding bounced around a little over the next few decades. This is despite the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which authorized increasing Title III funding from $756 million in 2017 to $884 million by 2020. Since 2002, Title III funding crested at $750 million in 2010 and dropped back to $737 million annually during 2015–19.

table 1
Title III Funding, 2002–19
Year Title III Appropriations
2002 $664,269,000
2003 $683,747,000
2004 $681,215,000
2005 $675,765,000
2006 $669,007,000
2007 $700,395,000
2008 $730,000,000
2009 $750,000,000
2010 $733,530,000
2011 $734,144,000
2012 $693,848,000
2013 $723,400,000
2014 $737,400,000
2015 $737,400,000
2016 $737,400,000
2017 $737,400,000
2018 $737,400,000
2019 $737,400,000
Source: U.S. Department of Education Budget Tables,

In other words, Title III funding has remained steady since federal support for EL students took its current form in 2002. Reasonable as that may sound, it actually reflects a dwindling federal commitment to funding ELs’ success.

More Students, but Flat Funding

First, while EL funding has been roughly the same over the past few decades, the EL population has not. In 2016, there were over 4.85 million ELs enrolled in U.S. schools—about one million more EL students than were enrolled when NCLB passed. Given that Congress appropriated $737.4 million in Title III funding in 2016, Title III was funded at approximately $150 per EL in U.S. schools in 2016. (Note that national enrollment figures have not yet been updated for years after 2016, and there has likely been additional growth in the country’s EL population since then.)

If $664 million was what we thought was sufficient to meet the needs of 3.77 million ELs, at the very least we ought to increase our EL funding to match the growth in the EL subgroup. That is, there are about 1.289 times as many ELs in U.S. schools now than there were in the early 2000s. To keep pace, Title III funding should have increased by a similar factor, from $664 million to $856 million in 2016. That’s the bare minimum that the country would need to provide in Title III funding to maintain the roughly $175 in per-pupil EL funding standard set in the early 2000s.

But $856 million would still fall short of maintaining even the basic levels established under NCLB, since it treats dollars as constant. If we take inflation into account, and convert $856 million 2002 dollars into 2016 dollars (using the U.S. Federal Reserve’s handy inflation calculator), we find that the country ought to be funding Title III to the tune of at least $1.14 billion. And if we convert those $856 million 2002 dollars into 2019 dollars, we get to a baseline funding level of $1.21 billion.

How Much More Funding Should Title III Really Have?

Note that most of the foregoing analysis accepts Title III’s initial funding levels—around $175 (in 2002 dollars) per EL student—as adequate. Of course, this is a contentious assumption at best. Consider: at these levels, a district that enrolled around 100 ELs would receive only $20,000 in additional federal support. That’s far from enough to fund an additional position for a full-time English as a Second Language teacher, let alone design, build, and launch the bilingual programs that research suggests are maximally effective for supporting ELs. Even with additional state or local education funding for ELs, the baseline of public support for helping ELs succeed is well short of sufficient.

In sum, there’s a strong case for exploring an even greater increase in federal EL funding. As ESSA nears its due date for reauthorization, policymakers could reasonably consider doubling, or even tripling Title III funding. In return, of course, they could consider increasing federal oversight of how well schools serve ELs.


  1. Note, however, that federal Title III grants to states do not result in even per-pupil allocations. Using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s most recent report to Congress on Title III implementation, we can see that, in the 2013–14 school year, California’s Title III funding worked out to $98 per EL, while Texas’ was $121 per EL and Maryland’s was $149.52 per EL.
  2. Note, however, that this is an artificial calculation, since Title III funding supports several other small federal grant programs in addition to providing the core grants for states to serve ELs. In other words, the actual per-pupil Title III spending on ELs is even lower than this calculation, once these programs’ budgets are subtracted from the total.