3 Things All English Learners Need But Aren’t Always Receiving: Funding, Attention, and Respect

3 Things All English Learners Need But Aren’t Always Receiving:  Funding, Attention, and Respect

In his 2019 piece for The Nation magazine, North Hollywood High School senior Scott Lee noted: “It’s easy to forget that the United States has no official language.” 

Writing from the perspective of a non-native English speaker, Lee recounted how he was able to “understand everything” in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles where he was raised, then found himself “immersed in a world of gibberish” upon leaving his community.

Eventually, Lee learned the United States’ unofficial language—English—at school, but he has never forgotten the confusion and isolation of being an English Learner (EL) forced to toggle between different worlds and languages. Speaking from this experience, Lee asserted that ELs need more respect, funding, and help—and, with the necessary support and encouragement, they have the “power to be a crucial part of the workforce of this country.” 

As the nation rapidly becomes more diverse, multilingualism is evolving into an increasingly prized asset. With this in mind, how can educators help set up ELs for success?
 

Increase funding for EL programs
 

In Lee's experience, a systemic lack of funding has made the services available to EL students skimpy at best, which is particularly troubling given that Lee attends school in a city with one of the nation’s highest percentages of ELs. And yet, noted Louis Freedberg of the online education news site EdSource, California’s schools “spend far less than most states on per-pupil funding.”

In 2016, San Francisco-based public radio station KQED documented how state funding changes were impacting EL students, staff, and programs. Although the legislature recently awarded local districts greater discretion over how to spend money to support at-risk students, other sources of funding were reportedly lost—to the extent that staff at one Sacramento school told KQED their EL students were at risk of having essential supports removed.

And, as Lee implied, EL program funding has also been an issue in the southern region of the state; a 2015 lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of parents whose children were being educated within the Los Angeles United School District alleged that state funding changes allowed the district to manipulate its budget in such a way to “reduce its obligation to add new or better services for high-need students, including English Learners, over time.” After winning the suit, the ACLU reached a deal with the district on behalf of the plaintiffs in 2017, but while the organization ultimately secured more than $150 million in restored funds, this was by no means the end of the issue. Indeed, the following year would see Los Angeles teachers going on strike, partly to protest the district’s working and learning conditions—including a lack of adequate resources for EL students.

Invest in EL teachers
 

According to teachers and administrators in districts from Arizona to Iowa, the fact that the recent EL student population increase was not mirrored by a rise in funding has hampered efforts to invest in helping ELs progress beyond specialized classrooms and into mainstream learning environments. 

As Lee and others have pointed out, the insufficient size of the EL teacher workforce further compounds the problem. After recalling encounters with only a handful of EL teachers over the course of his K–12 career, Lee went on to cite an alarming statistic: Fewer than 1% of teachers are specifically qualified to work with ELs.

In a 2018 article for the online education news and resource site Education Week, reporter Corey Mitchell noted another troubling stat—that more than half of all states are experiencing a shortage of EL teachers—and then proceeded to document congressional efforts to address the nationwide EL teacher shortage through a proposed Reaching English Learners Act that would direct extra resources to colleges with EL teacher training programs. 

The act, which has yet to become law at the time of writing, aims to address both the aforementioned EL teacher shortage and the changing nature of the job. After all, while their predecessors were focused only on helping students learn English, the EL teachers of today are expected to be attuned to broader social-emotional concerns and to help build programs that engage families and communities.

Echoing Mitchell's point, Lee characterized EL teachers as playing “an important role beyond the classroom,” often to the extent of serving as “the bridge between the student and a country they are expected to navigate.” 
 

The bottom line
 

While it may seem funding is all too often in short supply, investing in EL programs and teachers has the potential of yielding incalculable dividends. Moreover, as Lee contended, “ELLs should have the right not only to learn the language but also to ensure their future stake in this country that they have called home”—no matter the cost.

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