States are facing considerable challenges in meeting all children’s educational needs, especially given growing numbers of low-income and dual language learners (DLLs) in schools. For the most part, states and school districts bear the responsibility for serving DLLs. But the federal government, although it pitches in only about $723 million, has taken on a growing role in educating DLLs–albeit a still-controversial one.

Since 1968, shortly after ESEA first became law, lawmakers provided competitive grants to states for the development of bilingual education efforts. But by 2001, it was clear that the ranks of students who didn’t speak English fluently weren’t being well served by the districts and states in which they attended school. Subpar academic outcomes remained a persistent problem. With No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on improving outcomes for all students–including subgroups of students who were low-income, minority, or had limited English proficiency–it was clear that states would need to step up their game. So in that law, lawmakers transformed the federal program entirely.

As of the last ESEA reauthorization in 1994, bilingual education grants were housed in Title VII of the law. They were designed to help school districts improve their instruction of students with limited English proficiency so that they could improve their English fluency (and, the law says, “to the extent possible, their native language”) and their academic performance outcomes. Districts, early childhood education programs, and teacher preparation programs were eligible to win the competitive program. The winners got two-year grants to build out their bilingual education programs or five-year grants to implement schoolwide or district-wide programs.

After the No Child Left Behind reauthorization was completed in 2002, it was an entirely different story. Title VII, the English Language Acquisition grants program, was relocated to Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act–and more importantly, it became a formula-funded program, rather than a competitively funded one.

Formula-funded programs, by definition, are designed to ensure greater equity across the country. In a competitive grant program, there are necessarily winners and losers; those who receive funding, and those who don’t. A formula program may advantage some districts over others by weighting factors differently, but it provides at least some base level of funding to all districts. And by requiring some consistency across states in the use of funds (for example, to develop English language proficiency assessments), ensuring all states receive the dollars also broadens federal oversight to all states. So making the dual language learner funding available through a formula rather than a competition meant that virtually all districts had the benefit of those dollars–and all districts could be held accountable for their outcomes.

The new formula awarded funds to all states according to their share of dual language learners compared with the rest of the country (80 percent of the formula) and their proportion of immigrant children compared with the number of immigrant children nationally (20 percent). Even the states with the smallest awards got at least $500,000. States have to distribute the funds to school districts on a similar basis: the share of DLL children in the state identified by each district. Districts that would receive a grant of less than $10,000 are disqualified from receiving any funds.

But the new version of the law isn’t without problems. A suite of research has demonstrated inconsistencies and inequities in the formula. We’ll be exploring those inequities in a blog series over the next several weeks; check back with EdCentral on Friday for Part II of our three-part Title III series.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Clare McCann

Clare McCann is a policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Find her on Twitter: @claremccann