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The Democratic and Republican Party Platforms Overlook ELLs

Nelson Flores
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
English Language Learners

Immigration policy has been a central issue in this year’s presidential campaign. In contrast, education policy has received little attention. This is particularly true regarding the education of ELLs, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants. Struck by this lack of attention to ELL education I took a close look at both the Democratic and Republican platforms created as part of their respective presidential conventions to see what they officially say about ELL education. As is the case with the election as a whole, both party platforms offer specific proposals related to immigration policy but provide few details on what their party believes to be the best strategy for supporting the large and growing number of ELLs who are in U.S. schools

Both party platforms offer specific proposals related to immigration policy but provide few details on the best strategy for supporting the large and growing number of English language learners who are in U.S. schools. 

The differences in the immigrant policies of the Democratic and Republican Party platforms are not surprising. The Democratic Party platform promises to defend and maintain President Obama’s executive actions that provide some relief to “DREAMers," immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children without proper authorization, have now entered adulthood and are hoping to continue their education, or seek employment in the United States. The Democratic Party platform also supports efforts by states to provide DREAMers with opportunities to obtain driver’s licenses and in-state college tuition as part of this relief.

The Republican Party platform has the opposite position. In addition to supporting the building of a southern border wall that has been a defining characteristic of the Trump presidential campaign, it also vehemently opposes President Obama’s executive actions, referring to them as “executive amnesties,” and calls for a Republican president to rescind them. It also condemns “sanctuary cities” that provide relief to undocumented immigrants through refusals to cooperate with immigrant authorities in deportation proceedings and calls for these cities to be refused federal funding.

The party platforms also differ in important ways on education policy. The Democratic Party platform calls for “bold new investments by the federal government” to increase access to and the quality of the American educational system. In contrast, the Republic Party platform demands the end of federal involvement in the American educational system in favor of  “choice-based parent driven accountability.” Yet, neither party platform provides many specifics on the party’s stance towards educating ELLs.

Strong leadership and a clear vision are needed to ensure that ELLs receive a high-quality education. In this regard, both political parties fall short.

The Democratic platform makes general claims about holding states accountable for raising achievement levels for a range of subgroups that includes ELLs. The platform also calls for charter schools to retain proportionate numbers of students from a range of subgroups, including ELLs, and opposes "high-stakes standardized tests that falsely and unfairly label students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners as failing." The platform includes no specifics on the Democratic Party strategy for meeting the educational needs of ELLs and does not take an explicit stance concerning bilingual education. This is particularly ironic considering the fact that the presidential campaign has made such an effort to celebrate the bilingualism of vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine. If Democrats see an active role for the federal government in education and value the bilingualism of Tim Kaine, what role do they see for the federal government in ensuring U.S. children, including ELLs, have the opportunity to develop these bilingual skills?

Unlike the Democratic Party platform, the Republican Party platform makes no explicit reference to the education of ELLs. However, it does acknowledge the bilingualism of immigrant communities encouraging “the preservation of heritage tongues” while supporting making English the official language of the nation (currently the U.S. has no official language). At the same time, the platform explicitly opposes bilingual education asserting that “to ensure that all students have access to the mainstream of American life, we support the English First approach and oppose divisive programs that limit students’ ability to advance in American society.” This desire to impose an English First approach not only contradicts the research that illustrates the benefits of bilingual education but also contradicts the platform's stance that parents, not the government, should be the ones empowered to make educational decisions for their children. If Republicans truly believe in parental choice, what role do they see for parental choice in creating bilingual education programs? This question is especially pertinent considering the rising number of parents who are actively choosing bilingual education for their children.

Both political parties continue to overlook the importance of ensuring the educational success of ELLs. It is not enough to simply include them in a laundry list of subgroups that need to be accounted for. Instead, strong leadership and a clear vision are needed to ensure that ELLs receive a high-quality education. Bilingual education must be an essential part of this vision. In this regard, both political parties fall short.