Special Report

Funding Disparities Squeeze ELL Efforts

By Michele McNeil — December 31, 2008 6 min read
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Under pressure from the federal No Child Left Behind Act to rapidly improve academic achievement for more than 5.1 million English-language learners, states have adopted vastly different approaches to funding the programs needed to meet that challenge.

Some states appear to dedicate no additional money to the task. Others set aside line items in their budgets for language programs and, in some cases, allocate twice as much money for English-language learners as they would regular students through a weighting mechanism. And many states are somewhere in between, according to a new analysis by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

The variety and complexity of such funding methods makes it difficult to assess states’ fiscal performance in this area, school finance experts say.

“It’s extremely difficult to do a cost-benefit analysis if you don’t know the cost,” says Michael Griffith, a senior school finance analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “We have a data problem. We don’t ask school districts to account for what they spend on ELL kids, or any different student group, for that matter.”

Given that enrollment is one of the main drivers of school costs, it’s clear that the rapid rise in English-language learners, or ELLs, is contributing to the challenge states have to adequately fund their public schools. Nationally, growth in English-language learners jumped 57 percent between the 1995-96 and 2005-06 school years.

While states such as Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas have long had large numbers of English-language learners, others also are grappling with big spikes in enrollment. Concentrated mostly in the Southeast, 13 states saw growth of more than 200 percent in their ELL populations from 1995-96 to 2005-06. High on that list were Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, and, in the Midwest, Indiana, according to the federal government’s National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.

Differing Approaches

State funding isn’t the only source of money available to help students learn English. Federal grants to states under Title III of the NCLB law amount to $700 million a year—a dramatic spike from the $200 million allotted by Congress in 2001. The money funds English-acquisition programs in states.

States that provide additional money for ELL students do so through separate line items in their budgets, called “categorical” programs; through the school foundation formula, by giving more money per ELL student to districts; or through a combination of both.

Ten states don’t provide any additional funding for ELLs: Arkansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia, according to the EPE Research Center.

In West Virginia, while the overall student population has been declining, the number of ELL students had almost doubled by the 2005-06 school year from the eight years prior, according to the national clearinghouse.

The small West Virginia affiliate of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages group is trying to improve the funding picture. As a first step, it is pushing for legislation that would let the state distribute money to the counties to be used for ELL programs, though no specific funding is yet proposed.

“There was, until recently, no flexibility in funding, no mechanism to pay for these programs,” says Jane Wagner, the K-12 representative on the West Virginia TESOL board. “We have a lot of rural counties, and we’ve just had little experience with this.”

Nationally, 40 states and the District of Columbia provide some level of ELL funding. Among them, nine states do so strictly through categorical programs, and 26 states and the District of Columbia provide extra funding only through their foundation formulas by giving extra “weight” to ELL students. Five states provide funding through both methods, according to the EPE Research Center.

Yet the true funding picture is much muddier, says Griffith of the Education Commission of the States. Most states allocate more money for certain categories of students, such as those whose families are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, and some may count ELL students as part of that population.

Griffith also notes that most estimates of school funding simply represent how much money is allocated to school districts—and not necessarily where, how, or on whom it’s spent.

Indeed, of the 32 states that allocate more money to school districts based on their ELL populations, 24 don’t require the money to be spent exclusively on those students, according to the EPE Research Center.

The federal funding situation is similarly complicated.

Title III grants are distributed under a formula intended to allocate money based on the ELL population in the state, so states with higher ELL populations receive more money. But the data used in 2003-04 to determine ELL populations were flawed, according to a 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Education last October announced it would spend $754,415 on a grant to the National Academy of Sciences to study how best to distribute the Title III money. A report is due in September 2010.

Funding Priorities

In the quest for additional dollars, advocates for ELLs have focused on some of the same issues that have sparked school finance lawsuits in a number of states: equity and adequacy.

A landmark 1982 case in Texas, Plyler v. Doe, set the stage when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that school districts had to provide an education for students regardless of their immigration status. Since then, plaintiffs have launched a flurry of lawsuits trying to get more money and services for ELL students.

In 1988, Y.S. v. School District of Philadelphia was filed on behalf of thousands of Asian students in the Philadelphia school district. The outcome prompted a federal court to order the district to improve its language instruction.

In the past five years, education advocates in Colorado and Nebraska have filed lawsuits seeking more money for schools, with particular emphasis on a lack of additional money for ELLs—money that could be used, for example, on more teacher training or smaller classes. In both cases, the state supreme courts ruled against them, according to the National Access Network, based at Teachers College, Columbia University, which tracks school finance litigation.

In New Jersey, the long-running Abbott v. Burke school finance case has resulted in increased dollars through the general school funding formula for high-poverty districts, a remedy that has in turn led to extra money for English-language learners and other at-risk students.

The highest-profile case still pending, Flores v. Arizona, dates to 1992 and specifically addresses ELL funding. Federal courts have ruled twice that Arizona needs to provide more money for its approximately 140,000 ELL students. State lawmakers appealed in September to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even so, legislators last year approved a $40 million increase in funding for the 2009 fiscal year to pay for a new English-immersion program for ELL students.

But the response to that additional money illustrates the depth of the debate.

“The programs are still significantly underfunded,” says Timothy M. Hogan, the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, who is also the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the Flores case. “It’s clear it’s going to take more court intervention over the short term.”

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