As debate continues on Capitol Hill regarding the fate of “Dreamers” (young people who qualify for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act) there’s one immigration problem that isn’t making headlines: lack of federal funding for ELL (English Language Learners) in public schools.

On average, federal funding only accounts for 11 percent of the money school districts spend overall. That leaves the financial burden for ELL programs on the states, and those funding mechanisms vary widely due to differences in the needs and educational infrastructure state-to-state.

Currently, there are about 5 million ELL students, which represents about 10 percent of the overall number of kids currently enrolled in public schools. There are a multitude of studies and articles about the challenges faced by these children, many of whom were actually born in the United States but into homes where English is not the primary language.

But, those studies and the lack of funding for ELL (often called ESL, English as a Second Language) programs miss one very important point: the benefits of bilingualism to our people and our nation, which have been undercut repeatedly throughout history.

Bilingual with Benefits

Research shows that the ability to become truly bilingual, as ELL students can, carries a major advantage for these young learners. Cognitive neuroscientist, Ellen Bialystok, spent years researching how bilingualism sharpens the mind. She’s concluded that regularly using two languages improves executive function in the brain so bilingual children often have better attention spans and are able to switch between tasks more easily. As the bilingual person ages, their language ability allows for better cognitive function in their senior years.

In addition, children who learn more than one language at an early age find it far easier to acquire more languages in the future. Then there’s the practical benefit of being able to communicate across cultures, and the fact that half of the world’s population speaks two or more languages.

No fewer than 20 U.S. Presidents have been bi- or multilingual, including Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, and dating back to the Adams and Jefferson administrations. In the melting pot that is America, to speak two or more languages is textbook patriotism: a marker of immigrant backbone and our place of privilege in a globalized world.

By underfunding ELL programs we, as a country, are missing the opportunity to properly nurture and educate an exceptional group of students: children who have the potential to become national or international leaders in business, the arts, science, and politics. Cries of “speak English” have chimed in and out of our nation’s history without requests for resources that would allow children to proudly comply.

ELL in American History

This dismissal of home language and the potential of these children to do well in a cultural duality is not a new problem in the U.S. The tide of public opinion has turned multiple times, both in opposition to, and support of, educating children who didn’t speak English as a first language.

In the colony of New Amsterdam, later New York City, schools were were certainly not English language based. And when the mid-1800s brought a surge of immigration to the shores of the United States, there was little movement or pressure to have children speak or be educated strictly in English.

But strong anti-immigrant stances in the United States emerged by the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. With it came rampant xenophobia, codified even in the Democratic Party Platform. This anti-immigrant thinking brought a push for students to integrate, assimilate, and be educated in English only. There was even the forceful removal of Native American children from reservations to Indian Boarding Schools where they were forbidden to speak their native languages.

Despite these abhorrent actions, there was no formal recognition of the need to actually teach immigrant and born-to-immigrants children English, and certainly no federal funding available for such programs.

In 1963 the school district of Dade County, Florida reacted to a wave of Cuban immigrant students by expanding an existing (since 1961) “Spanish for Spanish” bilingual curriculum: the first time a formal, funded, bilingual program existed in the United States. It greatly influenced the Bilingual Education Act, which was passed by Congress in 1968. Now the specific needs of students with limited English skills was acknowledged at the federal level, and money made available for schools to address the challenge. This funding was was made possible thanks to the earlier passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which aimed to provide language support for Limited English Proficient (LEP) and immigrant students.

In the 1980s a resurgence of English-only legislative efforts once again put ESL programs and bilingual education on the line — including the introduction of a proposed constitutional amendment that would declare English the official language of the United States. Those efforts flipped in the late 90s and dual-language education for non-English-speaking students was reinstated in 1999.

I told you earlier that we cannot afford to waste the talents of one child,” Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley issued in a statement that year. “Today, immigrants and their children are revitalizing our cities, energizing our culture, and building up our economy. We have a responsibility to make them welcome here and to help them be part of the American success story.”

ELL Today

Despite the good intentions of Riley’s statement, today ELL students still lag behind their peers when it comes to overall school achievement and high school graduation rates. So not only is the unique (in the U.S.) opportunity of being bilingual overlooked, the lack of education tailored to their English-language needs is holding these potential leaders back.

This isn’t the case in many other countries. Research done in Norway and the Netherlands shows that bilingual (often immigrant) students match and often outperform their monolingual peers.

There are groups working to address this, like the nonprofit Teaching Matters, which has an Early Reading Matters program that mentors teachers who often have a large percentage of students from households where English is not their first language. But, to get the results found in other countries it will require funding and coordination at the federal level.

In the U.S., the proof of such an initiative being money well spent is right in front of us when we look at global business leaders. CEO of Bloomberg L.P. and former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, speaks both English and Spanish. For Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, it’s English and Chinese.

So, what to do, especially in today’s current climate where there is so much anti-immigrant fervor?  

People who truly care about the future of our country need to fight proposed cuts to federal education funding, especially when it comes to teacher recruitment, training and support. ELL programs lack teachers as it is.

Research alone won’t convince elected officials to properly fund ELL programs. For that to happen, personal stories from people who have dreamed and achieved need to lead the conversation.

So, the bilingual kids of yesterday who, today, are the high-achievers they once dreamed they could be need to continue to speak out, as do all allies of those in want of better education. It can be difficult, in today’s climate of anti-immigrant rhetoric and ICE raids and arrests, to remember how extraordinary it is to be dual-culture and bilingual. But overcoming fear and telling our stories is the best chance we have to gain support and nurture the bilingual leaders of tomorrow.