School finance commission reviews programs for English learners

The Texas Commission on School Finance is considering the funding and effectiveness of state instruction programs for public school students who are English learners, who comprise nearly one-fifth of public school students and whose academic progress is below the state average.

For each student in a bilingual or English as a Second Language program, schools receive extra funding from the state through a 0.10 multiplier to the basic allotment. The estimated total allotment was about $505 million in fiscal 2018. Districts also receive extra funding for textbooks and technology for students in these programs, with $10.3 million set aside for the current biennium.

The bilingual allotment has not changed since it was created in 1984. Some have called for increasing the allotment and targeting funding to programs shown to boost the academic achievement of English learners, a fast-growing student group. Among the commission’s charges is to recommend policy changes to the public education funding system to adjust for student demographics.

Texas school districts may choose from six options for teaching students for whom English is not their first language. These include English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, which are designed mainly to develop proficiency in English, and Bilingual Education (BE) programs, which purposefully integrate the students’ first language with English.

According to the Texas Education Agency (TEA), about 975,000 students were served in ESL and BE programs during the 2016-17 school year. Every district with an enrollment of 20 or more students of limited English proficiency in the same grade level must offer a BE or ESL program. About 90 percent of students in these programs speak Spanish as their native language.

Education Code, ch. 29, subch. B requires that children be identified as English learners within four weeks of initial enrollment in a public school through a parent-completed home language survey. If the survey indicates a language other than English as the language spoken at home, school district personnel administer an English language proficiency test to determine if the child should be identified as an English learner. Parents must approve or deny services for their child.

Children in the language programs are monitored annually for academic progress and attainment of English until they achieve full proficiency. They are monitored for two years after leaving the program and may re-enter if necessary.

ESL programs. Both kinds of ESL programs provide some or all content instruction in English while allowing for minimal support in the child’s primary language. In the “pull-out” model, students receive instruction in language arts/reading from a part-time ESL teacher and the rest in a mainstream classroom. In the “content-based” model, students receive instruction from a full-time ESL teacher in all subjects.

BE programs. The four types of BE programs provide full-time instruction in both the student’s home language and English, commensurate with the student’s level of academic achievement and proficiency in each language. Some programs, known as transitional early exit and transitional late exit, differ in length and the amount of instruction time devoted to a student’s primary language. They are designed to gradually transition students to instruction in English. Students develop low to medium levels of literacy in two languages through these models.

Another BE program, dual language, delivers at least half of a student’s instruction in the student’s primary language throughout the program. One-way, dual-language programs serve only students identified as limited English proficient, while two-way, dual-language programs integrate students proficient in English with those identified as limited English proficient. Unlike ESL and transitional BE, dual-language programs are designed so that children attain high levels of literacy in both their native language and English. Twenty-four percent of students in ESL or BE programs were enrolled in dual-language programs during the 2016-17 school year.

chart_ESL

A TEA official testified at the June 5 hearing that a national research study involving 8 million students found that those in dual-language programs significantly outperformed their peers in transitional bilingual and ESL programs on standardized tests in English reading taken over the course of their school careers. A witness from the University of Texas at El Paso presented 2016-17 data from the state’s STAAR tests showing students in dual-language programs statewide outperformed students in ESL programs in reading, math and writing.

Some members of the commission have proposed eliminating less effective instructional programs, such as ESL pull-out, and providing financial incentives for dual-language programs. Asked by commission members about barriers to districts that want to create dual language programs, several witnesses pointed to the initial costs to hire qualified teachers and buy textbooks in both English and Spanish. In addition, they said, some communities and some parents of English learners oppose dual-language programs because they believe the focus should be on getting students to achieve English proficiency, rather than proficiency in two languages.

By Janet Elliott

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