Increase funding for English language learners

Supporting English Language Learners

Goal #5 – Increase funding for schools with high levels of English language learners.

 Indiana’s 2016 statewide English Learner (EL) student count is estimated at 55,105.  Indiana’s overall K-12 student count is a little over one million.  From this, Indiana’s English Learner population is a little over 5% of the student population.   This is exciting because it sheds light on the reality that Indiana is demographically changing and becoming more culturally diverse, as is our nation.

 Data from the U.S. Census Bureau (1970-2010) and an American Community Survey (2014) indicate that the size of the immigrant population in the U.S. was 42.4 million in 2014 or 13.3%.  This percentage is the highest share of the total U.S. population over the past 50 years.  However, this is not as high as the peak immigrant share of the total U.S. population of 14.8% in 1890.  That’s right, our nation has always been a nation of immigrants, and the trend data today looks much like the trend data from much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  One major difference today is the countries from whence the immigrants are coming: Mexico, India, China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), El Salvador, Vietnam, Cuba, and Korea; in that order. 

 I recall as a young child venturing with my cousins down a country road from my grandmother’s farmhouse and discovering a 19th century cemetery at the intersection of two roads; any telling signs of a church that might have once accompanied this kirkyard, such as dry-stacked foundation rocks or well pumps, were long vanquished.  What remains are a series of old limestone tablets and carefully stacked rocks (often like a cairn found along a hiking trail) that provides perhaps the last tangible signs of generations before us that tilled the fertile grounds in the valley where I grew up.  What does this collection of approximately 50 or so tablets say?  I can’t tell you…they are all written in German.  As a child I could not comprehend why someone living in Indiana would elect to have their final resting place marked in a language other than English.  I couldn’t understand that many of the families who settled into the rolling hills of Indiana came not to shed cultures and languages that generations before them had spoken; rather, they came for a better way of life; they came for economic prosperity; they came for religious freedom (or to escape religious persecution); they came to avoid the political realities being faced back home.  This list generalizes the complex reasons associated with each family’s decision; and is obviously, far from inclusive.

 For many of these immigrants, who arrived after 1886, they were greeted by a Roman goddess wrapped in a vestment, holding a torch and a copy of the U.S. Constitution.  This statue also presented an inscription stating: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

 Today in our schools, we are privileged to be tasked with the awesome responsibility of educating students who are English Learners.  The terminology has changed over the years from “English as a Second Language”, “English as a New Language”, and “English Language Learner”, for example, but the responsibility remains the same: “…to help ensure that children who are limited English proficient attain English proficiency, develop high levels of academic attainment in English, and meet the same challenging State academic content and student achievement standards as all children are expected to meet” (Indiana Department of Education, English Learner Guidebook, 2013-2014).

 This responsibility for all schools in Indiana includes the identification of English Learner students and the development of an Individual Learning Plan.  English Learner students are ultimately placed on a scale of 1-5, with levels 1-4 being considered “Limited English Proficient” and level 5 being considered “Fluent English Proficient”.  For Kokomo Schools, this applies to 133 English Learner students. 

 As with other populations of students with specific learning needs, the cost associated with educating these students is far greater.  Some of these students need additional resources within their current classrooms to provide appropriate accommodations.  Some students require a resource situation outside of their primary classroom where instruction is focused solely on learning English as another language.  All schools are required by law to be provide English learners with this modified instruction.  In addition to staffing, this requires professional development and training for those teachers who work directly with these students.  Further, Kokomo Schools has an additional 62 English learners who are considered “proficient” but often need additional support even though the district does not receive specific funding for these students.

 The related needs for many of our colleagues in other school districts across Indiana are far greater.  Our friends in Logansport had 1,038 Limited English Proficient (LEP) students in 2015-2016.  For Fort Wayne this number was 2,434; Elkhart had 1,895 LEP students; Perry Township in Indianapolis had 3,144; and Indianapolis Public Schools had 4,387.

 On the policy and funding side of this issue, the greater cost of educating English learners must be recognized as well as the realization that the additional funding provided for this need is insufficient.  For 2016-2017, the State of Indiana has appropriated $200 per non-“proficient” student.  This is in addition to the approximately $160 received through federal grants.  Together, these amounts (approximately $360) are far below the cost associated with educating English learners.  This increased need is beginning to be recognized by some State leaders; but recognition is not enough.  We must follow through with adequate funding.

 State leaders MUST move away from recent decisions that often result in the equalization of funding.  We MUST not be so naïve to believe that it costs the same to educate all students.   State leaders must support comparability funding that attempts to make educational opportunities more equitable.  This includes providing the appropriate additional funding needed to educate English learners.  I encourage you to advocate for an increase of 20% for English Learner funding. 

 As the number of English learners increases, we must recognize that level funding (that is, providing the same amount of funding statewide for English Learners from one year to the next) actually leads to a decrease in funding for each student.  We must increase the overall amount of funding for English learning programs and the amount of funding for each English Learner student.  This is one goal that I am confident can, and will, be accomplished; but it is important to remain cognizant of the need. Just as important to remember is that providing effective and innovative programs for the education of English learners is not just a requirement, but an opportunity.  After all, most of us are just a few generations removed from relatives who were, in fact, English learners themselves.

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