Education Funding Opinion

Who Are These Kids? Language Learners in California

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — August 25, 2014 3 min read
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The English Language Learner lawsuit ruled upon August 12 by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant probably won’t grab the attention of Silicon Valley billionaires the way the Vergara suit has, but it’s still a big deal. English Learners make up a large and challenging share of California’s student body, and policies about language education have been controversial as long as California has been a state. Everybody gets involved: the courts, governors, voters on ballot initiatives, the legislature, you name it. A convergence of issues suggest that those politics are about to boil again.

Just last month, even before Chalfant’s ruling, State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) introduced SB 1174, which would undo some of the provisions of Proposition 227, enacted by the state’s voters in 1998.

Prop 227, as it is called, outlawed non-English language instruction beyond a single year for most children in the state’s public schools. It passed easily in the June 1998 primary election with 61% of the vote, and many of the provisions of SB 1174 would have to be approved by a similar popular vote.

As always, arguments about language education combine personal stories, identity politics, and academic research. Lillian Mongeau at EdSource covers it well. She reports on Lara’s bill, as well as two research reports published last spring by Ilana Umansky and Sean Riordan from Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, which may give encouragement to Lara’s allies.

Because this is likely to be a prominent issue for some time, we’ve put together some background about these students.

What do You Need to Know About English Language Learners in California?

1. We’re talking about a lot of kids. Laura Hill at the Public Policy Institute of California provided an excellent overview in September 2012. She reported that “nearly 25% of the students in California’s public schools are English Learners.” That’s now about 1.4-million kids, more than the student bodies of most states in the U.S.

California has more than one-third of all the ELs in the United States. The California Budget Project reports that more students are classified as English Learners in California than in the next four states (Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois) combined.

Still, that’s a smaller population than just a few years ago. The California Department of Education reports that ELs peaked at almost 1.6-million a decade ago.

2. Most of these students were born in the United States, and thus enter the schools in Kindergarten. Hill doesn’t report California numbers, but nationally, more than 80% of ELs were born in the U.S.

3. Most of them speak Spanish at home. About 85% of the state’s EL’s speak Spanish at home. No other language stands out: with just over 2%, Vietnamese is the next largest of the 59 languages that comprise the rest.

4. Most of them are poor. The state’s poverty rate remains above 20%, but as Hill notes, poverty among ELs is more than 75%.

5. They are concentrated in the largest districts. Though ELs comprise a large share of enrollments in several rural districts in Imperial and Monterey Counties, for sheer numbers you have go to the urban counties in Southern California. Los Angeles Unified, the second largest school district in the country, had 170,000 in 2012-2013, and L.A. County has more than 335,000. Orange County had more than 123,000 and San Diego County more than 110,000.

6. Most of them transition to English. Earlier this year, PPIC researchers Laura Hill, Margaret Weston, and Joseph Hayes reported on “reclassification” policies and performance in districts around the state. They found that school districts vary widely in the ways that they certify whether an EL student has achieved English Fluency, and that more than 90 percent of responding districts report using more demanding criteria than are suggested by the State Board of Education. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of ELs does eventually meet those standards, and are reclassified as fluent in English.

7. While they are ELs, they score lower on California Standards Tests. The state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) system was established in 1999, and until this year it tested students on a variety of subjects across the grade levels. In all subjects and at all levels, ELs test below fluent English speaking students. Interestingly, both of the PPIC reports note that students who have transitioned out of EL status often produce higher median test scores than students who have always been classified as English proficient.

California, and all of us, should watch the progress of these language learners carefully. If they don’t make it, the state won’t either.

(David Menefee-Libey is professor of politics at Pomona College.)

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.