“Every child should be able to receive the very best that our country has to offer, regardless of his or her circumstances of birth.” – Kevin Kumashiro, 2017

What is the role of the U.S. Department of Education in ensuring equity? 

While public education is largely guided by state and local agencies, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) plays an undeniable role in influencing public education. We have an obligation to understand how federal policies impact our student populations.

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The department’s stated mission “is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” While historical inequities have persisted in public education, the DOE is tasked with ensuring access to equal educational opportunity and promoting improvements. The Secretary of Education’s beliefs regarding the needs of underserved students, and the best ways to mitigate issues of access and school quality, critically impact the integrity and veracity of this work (Hardie, 2017).

Prohibiting discrimination in our nation’s schools is one of the central roles of the Department of Education. It must serve as a guiding force to diminish equity gaps.

The Secretary’s role includes advising the president on policies aimed at improving public schools for every student and diminishing equity gaps. Therefore, the implications of the Secretary’s experience, knowledge, policies, and beliefs have a direct impact on education at the local level, down to the students in our classrooms.

The DOE funds programs in 18,000 K-12 school districts that serve approximately 50 million students annually (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). It is important to understand what the Department does and does not have power over.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) limits the authority of the Secretary of Education. However, the Secretary has significant influence on key education and legislative leaders. This political sway has an impact on schools.

What is the DOE role in ensuring the rights of English learners?

The Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) is the Department of Education office responsible for ensuring high-quality English learner programs in all public schools. The office is tasked with national leadership, and its full title helps explain its role: Office of English Language Acquisition: Language Enhancement and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students.

Consider that nine percent of all public school students are English learners, and they are enrolled in nearly three out of every four public schools. The OELA has wide-ranging influence on the education of students throughout the U.S. Its activities are critical because, even with legislation in place, ELs continue to face significant gaps in opportunity and academic achievement.

The OELA advises the Secretary of Education on matters pertaining to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974. These legislative acts move beyond a simple requirement to avoid discrimination. They require schools to take affirmative steps in ensuring ELs receive explicit English language instruction. School systems must plan for and implement instructional programs with the intention of teaching English to non-native English speakers.

Roger Rosenthal, Executive Director of the Migrant Legal Action Program, referred to such programs by stating, “… just having the right to that program, of course was not enough, it’s important that the program be substantive, and allow access to both content and learning” (2014). School systems must guarantee that ELs have real access to all educational programs and extracurricular activities.

This office plays a critical role in advising the Secretary on matters of civil rights, access, and quality of English language programs. In order to appoint a qualified leader for OELA, the Secretary must have a sound understanding of the needs of English learners, second language acquisition, and federal regulations.

Why advocate for public education?

Public schools matter and every citizen has a stake in the success of public schools. A quality education is beneficial to individuals, and those benefits are aggregated to their community. Research consistently shows that people who graduate from high school earn more, spend more, and are less likely to depend on assistance programs. Additionally, high school graduates are less likely to commit serious crimes and more likely to engage in public duties, such as voting and volunteering (Mitra, 2011).

As civic institutions, schools are, at their core, about people. Schooling is not an industry and school systems cannot be run like businesses. Although supporters of public education acknowledge that much work is still needed to ensure equitable access to quality schools (Strauss, 2016), they believe that the problem can be addressed by building on the strengths of public schools rather than turning them into competitive or profit-driven businesses.

We believe public schools improve through greater support of civil rights and a relentless focus on supporting the work of increased equity and instructional quality. The Secretary of Education must support the refinement of public schools, follow federal law, and be prepared to lead our nation’s schools in focusing on solutions for educating all students.

E.L. Achieve strongly believes in the capacity of public education, and we are committed to supporting districts in meeting the needs of their communities. We will continue to be relentless advocates for the educational rights of English learners.

Written by: Donna Smith and Laura Jasso, Associate – Elementary Initiatives 


American Federation of Teachers. (2016). AFT president Randi Weingarten on nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/press-release/aft-president-randi-weingarten-nomination-betsy-devos-secretary-education

Hardie, G. (2017, January 26). Not So Hidden Figures [Blog post]. One Public Education. Retrieved from http://www.onepublic.education/

Klein, A. (2016, February 16). How many education secretaries have been K-12 classroom teachers? Education Week. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2016/02/education-secretaries-who-were-also-teachers.html

Kumashiro, K. (2017, February 2). How to pick a better ed. secretary than Betsy DeVos: Four principles for choosing the next U.S. Secretary of Education. Education Week. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/02/02/how-to-pick-a-better-ed-secretary.html?cmp=eml-enl-eu-news2

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Mitra, D. (2011). Pennsylvania’s best investment: The social and economic benefits of public education. Philadelphia, PA: Education Law Center.

National Education Association (2017). NEA president: Betsy DeVos is dangerously unqualified to serve as education secretary [News release]. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/

Roger Rosenthal: Attorney, Migrant Legal Action Program (2014). Colorín Colorado! Retrieved from http://www.colorincolorado.org/videos/meet-experts/roger-rosenthal

Strauss, V. (2016, December 21). To Trump’s education pick, the U.S. public school system is a dead end. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/12/21/to-trumps-education-pick-the-u-s-public-school-system-is-a-dead-end/?utm_term=.bb2e0aaee285

The Federal Role in Education. (2016). U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from  https://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/role.html 

U.S. Department of Education Office of Communications and Outreach. (2010). Overview of the U.S. Department of Education. Alexandria, VA: Education Publications Center. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/focus/what.pdf

U.S. Department of Education Principal Office Functional Statements. (2015). U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/om/fs_po/index.html 

U.S. Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition. (2016, November). English Learner Tool Kit for State and Local Agencies (SEAs and LEAs) (Rev. ed.). Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oela/english-learner-toolkit/eltoolkit.pdf

U.S. Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition. (2016). Literature Review Related to Assessment and Accountability Provisions Relevant to English Learners. Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oela/title3-litreview.pdf 

U.S. Department of Justice: Civil Right Division & U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. (2015). Ensuring English Learner Students Can Participate Meaningfully and Equally in Educational Programs. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/dcl-factsheet-el-students-201501.pdf