As a current middle school English learner (EL) specialist, I have experienced firsthand the absence of student and teacher resources needed to produce an equitable, rigorous learning environment for English learners. Schools historically fail at serving English learners adequately, whether through not having enough qualified teachers, lack of funding, or vague or limited federal and state guidelines for how schools should be educating them. English learners are more likely to experience homelessness, attend under-funded schools that are tasked with educating large proportions of students from low-income families, and graduate at lower rates compared to the national average.

Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) specifically allocates funding to state educational agencies (SEAs) and local educational agencies (LEAs) for helping English learners attain English language proficiency and meet state academic standards. But is it designed to fully support schools in those tasks?

Title III funds can be used for a range of activities that support better opportunities and outcomes for ELs, including high-quality professional development, providing effective language instruction educational programs for students to increase the English proficiency of students, holding LEAs and SEAs accountable for providing services to emergent bilinguals (EBs). What’s noticeably prohibited in Title III funding is that states cannot use funding for the allocation of teacher’s salaries, based on Section 3115(g) of ESEA, because states and localities are legally obligated to provide for these entities even in the absence of federal funding. Title III funds are, in legislative language, required to “supplement” local and state education funding, not to “supplant” it. Obviously, since ESL staff are central to delivering instruction that supports ELs’ learning, their salaries cannot generally be deemed “supplemental” to language instruction, and thereby cannot be funded through Title III.

There are already more than 5 million ELs in U.S. schools, and there are currently a little over 1 million teachers working with them. Since 2000, the number of ELs in schools has grown 28 percent, and is expected to continue this rise. With the continued growth of the EL population, the nation’s school system needs to train and hire more teachers equipped to educate these students; however, at the moment, Title III funds can’t be used for that purpose.

Schools need to be held accountable for how they’re utilizing Title III funds and how their teaching practices impact students and teachers, but they also deserve additional flexibility in how they can use the EL-specific funding they’re given. In order to educate the students they have, schools should be able to utilize Title III funds in addition to their state and local funds to hire and train the highly qualified bilingual, dual language educators they need.

While a school shouldn’t be allowed to simply replace state funding of current dual language educators with Title III dollars, it should be allowed to hire new, additional staff to support the needs of the school and the students it serves. With the number of English learners rapidly increasing, this is not the time to stick with old limits on how schools should provide for our students. Instead, policymakers should be engaging in continuous improvement and smart policy shifts that will best serve future generations to come.

All students deserve access to a high-quality, well-structured education. Yet, with the rising numbers of English learners, and nowhere near the amount of certified, well-trained teachers and support staff, federal policymakers need to make more resources available. A more flexible, forward-looking use of Title III funds could take a number of forms:

  • launching a new competitive grants program for school districts seeking to grow their ESL staffing;
  • launching a pilot program permitting states to apply for more flexible spending of Title III subgrants—specifically, granting districts the ability to use Title III funding to hire additional ESL staff to measurably reduce educators’ caseloads; and/or
  • defining a federal guideline for the minimum ESL teacher-to-student ratio required to adequately support EL students.

In order to reach all students equitably, federal education policy needs to keep up with the changes that schools are experiencing and the challenges they are facing. Adapting Title III funding to meet the moment is one way to ensure that students receive the very best education they can, one this country is more than capable of providing.