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California Takes the Lead in Targeting Education Dollars on English Language Learners, But There Is More to Be Done
July 2014

California Takes the Lead in Targeting Education Dollars on English Language Learners, But There Is More to Be Done

Robert Nichols/USDA

Despite the lingering effects of five years of brutal budget cuts as a result of the Great Recession, California is arguably doing more than any other state to target English learners in its schools. 

Yes, that's the same state whose students have lagged behind almost all others, not only on National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores but also on its per capita spending on schools.

As of this year, as a result of a plan championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, California has reformed its historically extraordinarily opaque school funding system by introducing the Local Control Funding Formula, which devolves more power to local school districts and targets thousands of extra dollars for every low-income student, English Language Learner (ELL), and foster child.

For some districts, the result will be a huge infusion of funds. The biggest winner is the Los Angeles Unified School District, which this year received some $700 million extra dollars and next year will receive an extra $837 million to serve students in the three high-needs categories.

As of July 1, after months of input from key education constituencies, including district-level English Language Advisory Committees, each of California's nearly 1,000 school districts was required to approve a "Local Control and Accountability Plan" for how they intend to spend those dollars, and how they plan to improve education outcomes for those students using the state dollars they will receive specifically for that purpose.

The reforms come on the heels of California passing its own version of the DREAM Act that makes unauthorized immigrants wishing to enroll in the state's public university system eligible for state financial aid. California also went through an extensive multi-year process aligning its English Language Development standards with the Common Core.

But will it be enough? The recent Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report Critical Choices in Post-Recession California: Investing in the Educational and Career Success of Immigrant Youth makes clear that California will have to do much more.

One danger is districts will spend the extra dollars they get from the state in a scattershot fashion and that the dismal statistics regarding immigrant youth in California—and English learners in particular—will remain unchanged. Here's one sobering statistic: only 63 percent of English learners graduate from high school in four years, compared to 92 percent of Asian and 88 percent of white students.

The MPI report proposes numerous ways districts can target the funds so they will make a difference, including spending funds on expanded learning time measures such as summer school for English learners and a "fifth year" of high school for recent immigrant youth. 

The report also emphasizes the need to upgrade the training teachers receive to serve this youthful population, even though California already requires every teacher to have a special authorization in English Language Development.

Additional counseling for English learners at the high school level will also make a difference, especially to make sure that unauthorized immigrants are able to navigate the maze of requirements that can put the benefits extended by the state's DREAM Act out of reach.

Adult schools—traditionally offered mostly by K-12 school districts—as well as community colleges also have crucial role, according to the report. But community colleges were badly hit by the state's budget crisis, and adult schools even more so. One of the more worrisome figures cited in the MPI report is that enrollments in federally funded English as a Second Language classes offered by adult schools fell by more than half over a five-year period—from more than 400,000 in 2007-08 to under 200,000 in 2012-13.  Efforts currently underway to restore this sector of the education delivery system must be supported.

The current reforms mark a dramatic turnabout in the drive to equalize spending among school districts, beginning with the landmark Serrano vs. Priest rulings of the California Supreme Court in the 1970s. Rather, the state is going in the opposite direction, with Gov. Brown arguing that school districts with high-needs students such as English learners deserve more funding, even it means unequal spending.

"It is not really justice to treat unequal (schools) equally," Brown argued in a recent speech in Los Angeles to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. 

What is needed now is to build on the momentum generated by the game-changing reforms underway in California. This will mean adopting a multidimensional approach, and targeting the additional state funds based on best practices, many of which are outlined in the MPI report.

It will also require carefully examining the Local Control and Accountability Plans just approved by districts to make sure that they are implemented in an effective manner. Unfortunately, as many educators and advocates are discovering, the plans tend to be opaque documents, with spending priorities and strategies not immediately transparent. 

It would be tempting to view the challenge as purely a California problem. But as the MPI report points out, "The results of these reforms across the education system hold critical implications for the success of English language learners and immigrant youth in California and—by virtue of the state's sheer demographics—the United States as a whole."

Success is not assured. But even as Washington remains gridlocked on any number of reforms—from the No Child Left Behind  Act (NCLB Act) to the national DREAM Act—California is at least moving in the right direction. Now the goal must be to make sure that the reforms currently underway work.  


Louis Freedberg is Executive Director of EdSource, which is based in Oakland, California and was founded in 1977 to engage Californians on key education challenges. He is also a member of the Migration Policy Institute’s Board of Trustees.