English learners (ELs) are the fastest-growing student population group in the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of U.S. public school students classified as English learners grew from 8.1 percent in fall 2000 to 10.4 percent in fall 2019. This represents an increase of more than 1.3 million English learners in U.S public schools since 2000.

As this momentous demographic shift continues, Congress should be asking: Do current federal policies support the sizable and fast-growing English Learner student population?

Recent history on the success of these policies suggests that there’s plenty of room for improvement. Under current federal policies, only 68 percent of ELs graduate high school, in comparison to 85 percent of their non-EL peers. And of the small number of ELs that graduate high school, only half enroll in college within two years of their high school graduation.

When thinking about how to better support ELs, some in Congress have proposed new and innovative policies. These ideas include, but are not limited to, federal funding for state Seal of Biliteracy programs through the BEST Act and aiming to enhance family literacy services to households of ELs through the FLUEnT Act.

While innovative new policies will surely help ELs maximize their potential, federal policymakers also should look to history—to policies previously in place to support ELs that were erased over time or that the political climate never allowed to materialize—for ideas to support ELs going forward.

One past piece of legislation that contains useful EL support mechanisms is the Bilingual Education Act (BEA) of 1968. The BEA was the first federal legislation in the United States that recognized that ELs need additional academic support. Under the initial BEA, $7.5 million in federal grants were given to individual districts to “develop and carry out new and imaginative elementary and secondary school programs” designed to meet the special educational needs of English learners. That is, the BEA’s grants targeted schools enrolling a high number of ELs to support those students’ growth in their native languages while they learned English. However, funding for these competitive grants remained relatively small—cresting at just short of $296 million in 2001. That year, the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) significantly changed the shape and priorities of federal EL policies. First, NCLB clearly prioritized English proficiency and sidelined the value of ELs’ bilingualism. Second, it shifted federal EL policies away from targeted funding in favor of an—admittedly larger—nationwide EL funding formula. In other words, NCLB erased much of the BEA’s work.

After more than two decades of this NLCB-inspired federal EL framework, it’s time for a rethink. Two particular elements contained within the BEA stand out as potential solutions to current EL struggles: (1) competitive federal grants to support ELs in highest-need areas, and (2) Funding for the expansion of bilingual education programs.

Competitive Federal Grants To Support ELs in Highest-Need Areas

The initial iteration of the Bilingual Education Act, passed in 1968, provided competitive federal grant funds for schools with high concentrations of ELs (specifically low-income ELs). These competitive grants went directly from the federal government to select districts. The BEA specified that these grants were to be used to take steps to develop bilingual education programs and provide preservice training for persons to participate in these programs. All told, by 2000 the BEA was supporting the growth of bilingual instruction in 691 districts. These grants were also increased from $7.5 million in 1969 to $162 million by 2000.

Unfortunately, the BEA’s competitive grants were discontinued in 2002 after the passing of No Child Left Behind. Under NCLB, EL funding moved from a federal competitive grant system to a formula grant system. This meant that instead of the U.S. Department of Education awarding competitive grants to help select schools launch bilingual programs, it was now committed to providing federal dollars to support all ELs in all U.S. schools. Under the new law’s Title III, the Department of Education would allocate funds to each state based on the sizes of its populations of ELs and of immigrant children—and states would then disperse funds to schools based on the number of ELs enrolled at each campus.

There were good reasons to make this switch. Every state now had federal funding for ELs, and for the first time, federal funds for ELs went to nearly all eligible schools. Congress appropriated over $660 million for Title III funds in the NCLB’s first year—and funding went up slightly in subsequent years.

Unfortunately, while Title III funding was larger than the old BEA budget, it was also tasked with supporting the educational success of a far greater number of ELs—not just those students in schools chosen for BEA grants, but essentially all ELs in the country. This problem stemming from this approach only grew over time, because the amount of federal funds weren’t increased in proportion to the larger number of ELs the funds were now supporting, which meant while there were more dollars involved, they were spread more thinly.

For example, in 2017, EL funding through Title III was at a level of $147 per EL student. At these levels, a district that enrolled around 100 ELs would receive only $15,000 in additional federal support. It goes without saying that this isn’t nearly enough to allow local leaders to meaningfully invest in better outcomes for these children. It’s not enough to hire even one new full-time staff member to support those 100 children.

In other words, federal policies governing ELs’ education went from narrowly targeted grants serving ELs in select schools to an underfunded, national effort to serve all EL students. It’s beyond time to combine these approaches. The federal government can deliver better educational opportunities both by providing broad support for all ELs while also restarting grants to districts with high concentrations of ELs where funds will be used to grow these students’ access to bilingual classrooms.

  • Recommendation: The next reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act should reintroduce federal competitive grants to supplement education funds for districts with high concentrations of ELs—while continuing to provide formula funding for all ELs.

It’s a thorny moral question: Is it better to help some people a lot, or help a lot of people a little? While it would be ideal to help all ELs a lot, the reality is that funding levels would have to at least triple for this to happen—which is very unlikely, given the slow growth of EL funding over the past fifty years. School districts with low numbers of EL students do not receive enough funding to make much of a difference in their EL students’ lives. However, since approximately 20 percent of schools enroll 75 percent of the nation’s ELs, it makes sense to allocate funding for competitive grants that could help these high-EL-concentration schools maintain programs that truly support their students. That is, the recommendation targets these 20 percent of schools to help some ELs a lot, until adequate funding is appropriated to help all ELs a lot.

It’s a thorny moral question: Is it better to help some people a lot, or help a lot of people a little?

Funding for the Expansion of Bilingual Education Programs

The BEA originally supported bilingualism as a goal—supporting the instruction of ELs in both English and their native language. Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas, the bill’s chief sponsor, had gone on record in 1967 as wanting “the creation of bilingual-bicultural programs, . . . the teaching of Spanish as a native language,” and programs “designed to impart to Spanish-speaking students a knowledge and pride in their culture.”

Yet, over time, Yarborough’s vision was whittled down in favor of an English-only approach to instruction. By the 1974 reauthorization of the BEA, policymakers were defining bilingual instruction as “transitional,” as a means of using ELs’ first language as a temporary strategy while moving them toward English-only instruction.

The 1984 reauthorization of the BEA would explicitly make its goal to “provide structured English language instruction, and, to the extent necessary to allow a child to achieve competence in the English language, instruction in the child’s native language.” The 1984 reauthorization also limited the time a student could spend in a bilingual program: “No student may be enrolled in a bilingual program . . . for a period of more than 3 years.”

In a surprising shift, the 1994 reauthorization of the ESEA, under the title Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA), restored the law’s emphasis on bilingual education. Giving “priority to applications which provide for the development of bilingual proficiency both in English and another language for all participating students.” Unfortunately, this would be the last time we would see this type of language supporting bilingualism.

Finally, under NCLB, the Bilingual Education Act was renamed into the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act. This codified the trend in federal education policy away from bilingualism and toward English-only monolingualism for ELs.

In recent years, a research consensus has built around studies showing that this English-only approach to education is not generally the optimal way to support ELs’ linguistic and academic development. One recent study concluded that “teaching students to read in their first language promotes higher levels of reading achievement in English.” Another 2014 study that followed thousands of teens from kindergarten into high school found that “EL students who remain in bilingual instruction, and especially dual language programs, outperformed the students in English only instruction.” Finally, a 2017 consensus report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine surveyed all recent research and concluded that “either that there is no difference in outcomes measured in English or that ELs in bilingual programs outperform ELs instructed only in English.”

As such, it is time to augment Title III with greater federal support for ELs’ bilingualism.

  • Recommendation: The federal government should resume providing federal funding for high-quality bilingual education. This should take the form of a new competitive grants program supporting the growth of linguistically integrated “two-way” dual language programs.

Viewing bilingualism as an asset, as the BEA’s architects originally intended, as opposed to a deficit, will have profound effects on the academic outcomes of ELs. Further, renaming the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act to the Bilingual Education Act would also help to emphasize the value of supporting bilingualism instead of giving primacy to an English-only approach.

Moving Forward

Neither the Bilingual Education Act nor the recent iterations of ESEA’s Title III are perfect on their own. The BEA was a targeted, limited program, reaching only a fraction of ELs across the country. But while Title III of No Child Left Behind (and the Every Student Succeeds Act) rectified this by shifting to a nationwide pot of EL-specific money, it abandoned any support for ELs’ bilingualism. These two policy approaches are often considered in opposition, as alternatives. That is a mistake. These approaches are compatible—and federal policymakers ought to restore competitive grants for expanding access to bilingual education when they rewrite ESEA.