This story originally appeared in the Times Record News in Wichita Falls, Texas.
A Times Record News investigation revealed that in the 2014-15 school year, WFISD elementary schools with the highest numbers of English-language learners did not receive as much bilingual support as schools with fewer students in that classification. It also showed that while the number of English-language learners has steadily increased in recent years, the district is spending significantly less overall on bilingual funding.
Case in point: Zundy Elementary, which in 2014-15 had the highest number of students classified as English-language learners in the school district, was allocated about $32,000 for bilingual programs. By contrast, Southern Hills Elementary received $237,000 but had fewer students in need of bilingual programs in that year.
Even Crockett Elementary, which has two-thirds fewer English-language learners than Zundy, received about $94,000 for its bilingual programs, almost three times Zundy’s budget.
Scotland Park Elementary, with the second highest number of English-language learners in the school district, was allocated only $22,000 for bilingual education. Neither Scotland Park nor Zundy had a bilingual teacher on staff in 2014-15, school district data shows.
Students classified by school districts as being English-language learners are already at risk because of the socioeconomic and cultural background they come from, and without effective bilingual education programs, they also are in danger of dropping out of school, said Maria Arreguin-Anderson, president of the Texas Association for Bilingual Education.
“The resources (English-language learners) have access to are certainly very, very different depending on the campus and the location … but they should be proportionate,” Arreguin-Anderson said. “Some students, when they enroll, and they come from another country, they’re tasked that year with learning the language and the academics. But after two or three years of instruction in a language they do not understand, they gradually begin to become discouraged.”
Deborah Palmer, the bilingual/bicultural program coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin, referred to discrepancies in bilingual spending at WFISD as “fairly drastic inequities.”
“If these funds are not going where they should, it is a serious issue,” Palmer said.
In emailed responses for this story, the WFISD said the socioeconomic status of students and the grades they attend are factors in determining allocations for bilingual programs. The district also said student mobility between campuses and school districts may have played a role in the apparent inequity.
Spokeswoman Ashley Thomas wrote that the district spent $700,000 more on bilingual programs than the TEA required it to and has passed all “compliance testing” for the 2014-15 year. Thomas did not address specific funding discrepancies among WFISD campuses.
MORE NEED, LESS MONEY
Southern Hills Elementary’s $236,000 budget for bilingual programs is the highest of any campus in the school district. It received more than Zundy, Scotland Park and Lamar elementary campuses, though those schools had a higher percentage of students classified as English-language learners, data shows.
Funding for bilingual programs fluctuates wildly between WFISD elementary schools, and allocations do not appear to be based on the number of English-language learners at the campuses or what percentage of the student population they make up.
Bilingual programs for English-language learners are mandated by the TEA, the regulatory agency overseeing Texas public schools. The agency’s rules require that school districts with more than 20 students who speak the same language in the same grade be provided with some type of bilingual education.
“Experience has shown that public school classes in which instruction is given only in English are often inadequate for the education of (ELL) students,” saidLauren Callahan, a TEA spokeswoman. “The mastery of basic English language skills is a prerequisite for effective participation in the state’s educational program. Bilingual education and special language programs can meet the needs of those students and facilitate their integration into the regular school curriculum.”
The agency defines an English-language learner as a person who is learning English and who has a different native language. In Texas, most English-language learners are Hispanic and of Mexican descent.
Public school districts are required to annually submit to the TEA the number of English-language learners at each campus and how much is spent by the district for bilingual education at those campuses. The Times Record News analyzed data submitted by WFISD, finding that schools with the highest numbers of ELLs did not receive the most bilingual funding in 2014-15, and also that bilingual funding for some schools decreased even as the number of English-language learners increased.
From 2013-14 to 2014-15, Scotland Park Elementary’s large English-language learner population rose by about 10 percent. Logically, funding for bilingual programs would have been increased by the same percentage — instead, the school’s bilingual budget was slashed from $180,000 to $22,000.
The decrease can be partly explained by the loss of 2.5 bilingual instructors at the campus from one year to the next, but it’s not clear if the teachers resigned, were fired, or moved elsewhere in the district. It’s unknown why they weren’t replaced.
And while some WFISD campuses do not appear to receive a proportional share of funding for bilingual education, others are minimally funded or not funded at all, despite having a small number of English-language learners, data shows.
In 2014-15, Fain Elementary received no bilingual funding but had five English-language learners enrolled. Fowler Elementary was not allocated any funding for its 11 ELLs.
Greta Benavides, WFISD’s foreign language and ELL coordinator, wrote in an email to the Times Record News that English-language learners have “different needs and require different levels of intervention and support.”
Schools such as Fain or Fowler may share a roving bilingual instructor, as their small ELL populations don’t necessarily require a dedicated, on-site teacher, Benavides wrote.
“Some campuses have higher-needs students than others, and these include their ELLs,” she wrote.
Benavides acknowledged difficulty in staffing classrooms for some English-language learners, calling it “a challenge for all school districts in the country.”
To the question of why bilingual dollars do not appear to be spent proportionately with the number of English-language learners at some campuses, Benavides wrote that the district’s funding decisions could be affected by number of students at the campus, the languages they speak, the socioeconomic status of specific campuses and which grades those campuses teach.
“Numbers will always drive our allotment of funds as a first criteria, but grades, languages and language proficiency will impact the decision too,” she wrote.
Still, the district did not specifically address the funding discrepancies at its campuses. It remains unclear why some schools receive so much and some receive so little.
INEQUITY GROWS IN FUNDING SHORTFALL
Funding for the WFISD’s bilingual programs has decreased by half since its peak of $2.1 million in the 2012-13 school year. By 2014-15, overall district funding had fallen to $1.2 million, despite a slight increase in students classified as English-language learners.
In that time, the number of English-language learners enrolled in WFISD schools ticked up from 896 in 2013-14 to 914 in 2014-15. Some experts said the district’s drop in overall funding likely can be traced back to the state level, where funding weights created in the 1980s haven’t kept pace with current student needs.
The state of Texas established the funding weight — the percentage of money paid by the state to individual districts on a per-student basis — in 1984, setting the weight for English-language learners at a 0.10 multiplier. Schools may get an additional allotment for students who are English-language learners and also are economically disadvantaged.
Bilingual education advocates have called for the English-language learner funding weight to be increased to meet the growing demand for programs. Though the number of English-language learners has increased from 200,000 to almost 1 million since 1984, the funding weight has not been increased in that time.
“The population keeps growing and the amount of money there to support them has not grown. Now with higher standards in place, it takes more training and curriculum materials,” said Delia Pompa, a former TEA bilingual programs supervisor and current senior fellow of the Migration Policy Institute. “You need the kind of supports in place that only money can pay for.”
Research also has shown the state’s funding-by-weight system may be inherently flawed because it’s prone to manipulation at the school district level.
In a scathing report released this year, the Texas Public Policy Foundation reviewed the state of Texas’ public school funding system, finding it to be inequitable both between school districts and between campuses within the same school district.
“District adjustments and student weights — beneficial in theory — have led to inequity in practice because they provide the basis for political gamesmanship,” the report reads. “In practice, the weights are outdated, inefficient and more influenced by political strategy than student needs. If this were not the case, if the primary concern were student equity, then all students in the same program (such as bilingual education) would receive the same allotment regardless where they live.”
Last year, the Texas Supreme Court heard arguments in Clint Independent School District v. Sonia Herrera Marquez et al., in which parents alleged the West Texas district was not funding its campuses equitably.
A more affluent high school in the district was allocated $10,000 per student by the Clint ISD, while two high schools in less well-to-do areas received significantly less, the plaintiffs charged. But after bringing the case to Texas’ highest court, it was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction — justices told plaintiffs they’d have to seek relief through the school district before filing suit.
Similar school funding lawsuits are being fought all over the nation, including in California, Kansas, Florida, New Mexico and South Carolina.
It’s difficult to tell what exactly the $1.2 million in bilingual funding goes to in the WFISD.
Experts say it’s generally the case that the highest cost is for certified teachers, but in 2014-15 the school district reported having only 5.4 bilingual/ESL teachers for its more than 900 English-language learners.
Other money could be spent for instructional materials in Spanish and English, tutors, equipment and computer software.
Schools across the state are struggling with less funding for bilingual education, but administrators have to be diligent in doling that money out fairly to campuses that need it the most, said David Hinojosa, national director of policy for theIntercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio.
“I think (low state funding) is certainly part of it. Districts sometimes do not have those opportunities because they don’t have the resources available for it,” Hinojosa said. “But that does not mean districts should not be attempting to institute bilingual programs with the highest fidelity for those students.
“It’s not an excuse not to offer bilingual programs,” he said.
CAUSE AND EFFECT
Fewer than 20 percent of English-language learners who graduate from WFISD high schools are ready for college in the subjects of English and math, data shows.
Only 14 percent of ELLs in the Class of 2014 were college-ready in English/language arts, compared to a district average 69 percent, and only 14 percent of graduating ELLs were ready for college-level math work, compared to the district average of 66 percent.
There were zero English-language learners in that graduating class who were deemed college-ready in both subjects.
WFISD English-language learners also consistently had lower passing rates when compared to scores attributed to non-ELL students in the district, TEA data shows. ELL students did especially poorly in fifth grade STAAR science testing, where they had a passing rate of 22 percent, and in the seventh grade writing test, which showed a 15 percent passing rate.
The only subject passed by a majority of English-language learners in all grades was mathematics. Tests in all other subjects — reading, writing, science and social studies — were failed by a majority WFISD’s bilingual students.
The Times Record News analysis revealed a direct correlation between funding for bilingual programs and STAAR test scores in the 2014-15 school year in the WFISD.
Zundy Elementary, which received a disproportionately small funding allotment for its large bilingual population, did not breach a 50 percent passing rate in any testing subject. English-language learners at highest-funded Southern Hills Elementary, however, performed markedly better in every subject, failing only the fourth grade reading exam.
Lamar Elementary, which received more bilingual funding than Zundy but less than Southern Hills, had STAAR scores in the middle of the two for its English-language learners. Despite failing two testing subjects, ELL students at Lamar still performed better than Zundy in every state test they participated in.
It may already be too late for some of the English-language learners who haven’t received an adequate bilingual education in the WFISD, said Arreguin-Anderson, the Texas Association of Bilingual Education director. A lag in education for those students becomes apparent in middle school and puts English-language learners at risk of dropping out.
“By the time the school year ends, we realize the students have acquired some language skills but they’re behind academically,” she said. “They start to just be absent, even though they’re in the classroom. Later they choose to drop out. It’s no surprise that many minority students do not even consider college as a possibility and struggle with high school graduation.”
The difficulty of learning in a foreign language can be compounded by the fact that many English-language learners have more challenging home lives than their English-speaking peers, Arreguin-Anderson said. Because their parents do not speak English, it’s difficult to get help with homework outside of school.
Some parents of English-language learners are not in the country legally, and elementary students must struggle with the notion that their mother, father or other family members could be deported.
“They may be in a difficult situation academically and linguistically, and now you don’t know if your entire family will be there tomorrow for dinner,” Arreguin-Anderson said. “You don’t know if you’ll have to move to a different location. So for children whose lives are always threatened by different factors, and we expect them to also exceed academically, it’s very difficult.”
English-language learners who graduate from high school have a competitive edge in the job market, especially in Texas, where bilingualism is a sought-after trait in applicants. Research gathered in 2012 by the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies found Latinos who spoke Spanish and English made an average of $15,000 more than Latinos who spoke English only.
“As they become a bigger part of our population, we need to make sure they’re prepared just like everybody else is prepared,” said Pompa, the senior fellow at the National Migration Policy Institute. “The population is growing all over the country. We’ve got more and better research on how to teach these children, so there’s not any excuse for not teaching these students well.”