How Much Extra Money Should Go For English Learners?

Saturday, 2 Jun 2012, 3:02:00 AM

Mirror Staff

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

At budgeting time, when legislators and the governor decide how much state support each public school pupil should get, it’s pretty clear that some students are more equal than others, as the late "Animal Farm" author George Orwell might have put it.

As things now stand, school districts will start out getting a base grant of $4,920 for every student they register during the next school year. Then there are extras, with the single largest category both in terms of money provided and numbers of kids involved being pupils designated as English learners.

If you have a child who speaks little or no English, his or her school will get at least an additional 8 percent from the state on top of the basic grant.

But if you’ve got an extra-bright kid there’s absolutely no state requirement that your local school district put any money into gifted and talented education programs tailored for that child. So when parents lack the funds to send children to a private or parochial school, the brightest pupils can be out of luck when it comes to the stimulation often needed to hold their attention and facilitate further progress.

Classes for the gifted, unlike teaching English as a second language, are a local option. School districts can spent money for them or not, as local school boards decide, and in an era of extremely tight education dollars, some districts have opted out.

There are plenty of other programs in a similar spot: college counseling for high school students, civic education, training assistance for bilingual education teachers, school safety, ongoing training for principals, summer school and ninth grade class size reductions were just some of the programs on a list the nonpartisan state legislative analyst’s office presented to an Assembly committee this spring.

It’s almost inevitable all those programs will suffer cuts, even if the tax increase initiative pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown should pass.

One reason: The money going to English learners will increase dramatically if Brown’s proposed new state budget passes as submitted.

The theory is that extra attention and teachers need to be diverted to English learners in order to bring them up to speed. So Brown wants to increase the current 8 percent added “weight” given them to 37 percent over the next six years. In short, the state would give districts $6,740 to spend on educating each English learner they have enrolled.

The very thought of this rankles some Republicans, who contend this all is a subsidy for illegal immigrants. It doesn’t matter to those making this claim that the long and vast immigrant tide from Mexico has been brought to a virtual halt by a combination of today’s lousy economy and new enforcement tactics, which combined last year to cause more persons to move from this country to Mexico than the other way around, according to a new study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

“ESL (English as a second language) is really about helping illegal aliens learn English, using money that could go for equipment, textbooks and supplies for honest students,” gripes Stephen Frank, an ultra-conservative blogger and former head of the California Republican Assembly. “(The Brown proposal) means that illegal aliens, instead of having 8 percent more money spent on them for education will now have 37 percent more…Our kids deserve better than having criminals stealing their education money.”

That complaint, of course, ignores the fact most English learner students now enrolled in California schools are U.S. citizens, regardless of their parents’ immigration status. And the fact that youthful illegals can hardly be categorized as criminals just because their parents brought them here at an age where they had nothing to say about the matter.

For sure, there’s one other issue that must be dealt with before the Brown program should go forward: How to prevent the extra money from keeping students in English-learner status long after their language skills are adequate.

Said the legislative analyst report, “High funding linked to English learner status could create fiscal incentives not to reclassify students as proficient in English.” In short, the longer a child is classified an English learner, the more money goes to the school district involved.

Some experts already believe too many students are being kept too long in English-learner status.

The bottom line: Without at least some tweaks to ensure honesty and some consideration for the brightest children, this change should not go forward.

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