The fate of the Education Department’s English learners office

 In Politics

With help from Caitlin Emma and Ted Hesson

THE FATE OF THE OFFICE FOR ENGLISH LEARNERS: Plans to restructure the Education Department’s Office of English Language Acquisition are drawing ire from advocates and Democrats in Congress, who say folding the office into the agency’s larger K-12 operation will dilute attention to students learning English. But the department is attempting to quell those concerns and a spokeswoman said there’s no intent to bypass Congress.

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— Education Department officials in a briefing earlier this year said the proposed restructure included the dissemination of staff throughout the larger Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, advocates who attended the meeting told POLITICO. They said the plans also included a shift in the role of OELA Director José Viana, who would no longer report directly to the secretary.

— Spokeswoman Liz Hill told POLITICO on Thursday that the department has continued to hone its proposal since a draft of the restructuring plans surfaced in September. She said current plans for the office call for it to be “picked up intact” and moved into the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, “with its director remaining in place.”

— Advocates have been alarmed by the idea that the office no longer would be separate. “Our position is that this is counterproductive and has the potential of diluting an office that has a statutory duty to [English Learners],” said Bill Rivers, executive director at the Joint National Committee for Languages. “Our entire coalition feels that you would be taking away services,” said Santiago Wood, national executive director for the National Association of Bilingual Education, in an interview. Both organizations are part of a broader coalition of 16 other groups that have twice written to the department asking it to halt its plans.

— Meanwhile, Democrats in both chambers oppose folding the office of English learners into the broader K-12 office. “Consolidating the office and undermining its director’s authority reflect this administration’s continued vitriolic rhetoric and policies toward communities of color and those who speak another language,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) told POLITICO in a statement.

— Cortez Masto joined Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and 26 other Democrats in a May letter asking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to discard the department’s plans for OELA. A spokesman for Grijalva told POLITICO his office is working with the Congressional Research Service to understand the limits of the department’s authority to restructure the functions of OELA and the role of its director.

— Hill said that as the department moves ahead with the restructuring, it “would be happy to work if Congress” if lawmakers feel any part of the plan requires legislative approval. “The department is not bypassing Congress,” she said. More from your host here.

IT’S FINALLY FRIDAY AND THIS IS MORNING EDUCATION. Send tips, clips and feedback to [email protected] or @MelLeonor_. Send events to: [email protected] And follow us on Twitter: @Morning_Edu and @POLITICOPro.

GRACE PERIOD FOR STUDENT VISAS: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Thursday evening dialed back an earlier policy aimed at cracking down on foreign students who overstay their visas. The agency issued a revised memo that offers a grace period for certain international students on expiring F, M or J visas before their overstay will be counted against them.

Under the reworked policy, students on F and M visas who apply to have their visa status reinstated within five months of its expiration will have the accrual of “unlawful presence” in the U.S. suspended pending the outcome of the application. “If the reinstatement application is denied, the accrual of unlawful presence resumes on the day after the denial,” the agency said in a related announcement.

In the case of people on J visas (intended to promote cultural exchange), applicants who are reinstated “will generally not accrue unlawful presence” from when they fell out of status to when they were reinstated, the agency said.

USCIS said in a May memo that beginning Aug. 9, it would count unlawful presence from the date a student visa expires. Previously, the clock would start when USCIS formally processed a visa overstay or following a deportation order. If an immigrant accrues unlawful presence, it can lead to being barred from the U.S. for years, or even permanently. Read the revised memo here.

GRADUATION PRAYERS CHALLENGED IN COURT: A decadeslong practice of including prayers during school graduation ceremonies in the Greenville County School District in South Carolina is being challenged in federal district court. The American Humanist Association is asking the U.S. District Court of South Carolina to resolve a yearslong case by ending the practice altogether. The school district and AHA have been entangled in the legal fight since 2013. In 2015, a district judge found the practice unconstitutional, but allowed prayers moving forward as long as they were “student initiated.”

— In a filing Thursday, AHA argues that the prayers have continued in the district in a way that may subject unwilling students, and that the district’s new approach violates the 2015 ruling by including “religious language in written programs, encouraging students to pray and asking audiences to stand for explicitly Christian prayers.”

— “The school district’s practice of subjecting captive student audiences to prayers at graduation ceremonies forces non-religious students to choose between attending one of life’s most significant occasions and forgoing it only to avoid the pressures of participating in a religious ritual,” said Monica Miller, senior counsel at AHA and lead counsel in the case.

— The Greenville County School District, meanwhile, has argued in court filings that it “has merely taken the position that it will not engage in viewpoint discrimination by prohibiting a student chosen on neutral criteria to give a welcome, closing, or other student message if he or she chooses to speak from any particular perspective, including from a religious perspective.”

— AHA claimed a victory in court in a separate case last month that challenged a Colorado school district’s promotion of a church-sponsored service trip to Guatemala involving students. A federal district judge ruled that the Douglas County School District in Colorado violated the Establishment Clause by sending flyers and emails asking parents to make donations toward the trip, and by hosting a supply drive at a school. A district parent, backed by AHA, sued in 2014.

— “The Court finds that defendants’ actions amounted to ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion,” U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson wrote. “…The District itself described its relationship with the … supply drive as a ‘partnership.’ These actions and words had ‘the effect of advancing . . . religion.’”

ED ISSUES GUIDANCE ON HOMELESS STUDENTS: Districts serving students in Title I schools should still set aside funds to provide homeless students additional services from those offered to students at low-income schools, the Education Department told officials in new guidance. According to the department, prior to the Every Student Succeeds Act, districts composed of all Title I schools didn’t need to reserve additional funds for homeless students. Under the new education law, districts are advised to set aside funds for things like transportation or pay for a homeless liaison. Read the guidance here.

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