New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has garnered his fair share of media attention in recent months due to his early support of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. But in his home state, in recent weeks, the spotlight has been on Christie’s proposed changes to the state’s school funding system. Under the state’s current system, schools are funded under a weighted formula that provides additional dollars to special education, low-income and English learner students and to the 31 poorest districts. These types of funding structures are designed to increase equity and ensure that students with more needs receive more resources.
But from Christie’s perspective, pouring additional money into struggling districts has been ineffective and a “waste” of taxpayer money. Currently, more than half of the state’s annual $9.1 billion in funding for education goes to a small number of districts, “[A]bout $5.1 billion goes to 31 districts, while the other $4 billion goes to the remaining 546 districts,” said Christie. Under his “Fairness Formula” per-pupil funding would be equal across the state with each student receiving $6,599 (special education students would continue to receive additional funding).
To be sure, the plan has been met with swift criticism. Dana Goldstein argued in Slate that the plan would effectively steal from the poor to give to the rich. Other critics view it as a by-product of Christie’s affiliation with Trump and adoption of strategies that seek to cast different groups against each other for political gain. And the New York Times editorial board called the plan “toxic” and stated that “a flat amount would make it impossible for poor communities to provide a sound education for disadvantaged children who need classrooms with more resources.” Even some conservatives, like the Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli, have expressed concerns. Estimates suggest that the new funding system would cut Newark’s — where 10 percent of students are English Learners and 71 percent of children are low-income — education budget by more than half.
Christie’s plan does not appear to be focused on students’ educational outcomes. Rather, it appears to be simply a tactic to lower property taxes and satisfy New Jersey voters who primarily vote on that issue. The Governor is recasting his state’s role in school funding, which, as a new Migration Policy Institute report frames it, is usually “intended to supplement local funding to even out disparities between wealthier and poorer communities.” Indeed, Christie’s plan ignores the fact that it costs more to educate certain populations of students, including English Learners (ELs).
Julie Sugarman, the MPI report’s author, examines the myriad factors that influence the cost of educating language learners. First, it can be expensive for districts to hire teachers with the specialized skills necessary to work with ELs. The scarcity of teachers trained to work with ELs can also impact budgets as some states and districts often “pay a premium to recruit and retain them.” Sugarman cites the example of New York, where students are required to receive a specified number of minutes of instruction from a teacher certified in English as a Second Language or Bilingual education. Additionally, the state has moved towards a co-teaching model where ELs receive integrated ESL instruction (that integrates content and language instruction) from an ESL/bilingual teacher and a general education teacher. While these policies track research on best practices for ELs, they carry additional costs.
Second, variations in EL instructional program models add variable costs to school districts. Models that require an ESL specialist teacher to “push-in” or “pull-out” to work with ELs can increase the cost of EL instruction — since they require additional teachers. For example, in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), ESL teachers are assigned based on the number of EL students in a school and their levels of English language proficiency. The ratio used in DCPS is one ESL teacher per 22 EL students — in 2015, I visited an elementary school that had 7 ESL teachers due to their high enrollment of language learners! School districts also generally have staff on hand to translate essential materials for families, conduct language assessments, and provide student support in multiple languages.
Finally, local demographics and capacity can play a large role in determining the baseline level of funding a district needs support EL students. Sugarman points out that differences within the EL student population mean that districts must design a range of programs and services. Consider: newcomer students who arrive in U.S. high schools with low levels of English language proficiency can present unique challenges. Some of these students come to school with gaps in their education and require extensive instructional support to get on track to “perform grade-level work, and meet course requirements for graduation,” writes Sugarman.
Unexpected influxes of newcomers and unaccompanied minors can also have an impact on a district’s bottom line since many schools are funded based on estimates of how many students will be enrolled for a particular school year. That means district administrators and school leaders must often revert to creative solutions to ensure that ELs arriving mid-year still receive necessary instruction and supports. She cites an example of a school district in California that had to open an “emergency program” to accommodate the unexpected influx of high school newcomer students.
School districts pay for these additional (and/or unexpected) costs through a mix of federal, state and local funding systems. Federal contributions — which make up only 11 percent of funding to U.S. schools — to EL education are made primarily through Title III grants (the FY 2016 Title III budget was $737.4 million to serve 4.9 million ELs). These grants are given to school districts for the purposes of supplementing existing services for ELs including instructional staff, materials, professional development and family engagement. But these funds are generally seen as insufficient to the need and in some states, amount to less than $100 per student. Furthermore, it can be difficult for federal authorities to ensure that these funds are being used in targeted ways to actually improve ELs' opportunities and achievement.
The lion’s share of EL funding comes from states and local districts. Weighted-funding systems, that provide additional funding on top of the base allocation, are an increasingly popular mechanism for meeting the needs of student subgroups, including ELs. Under California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the state funds each EL student at 20 percent above the standard per-student funding level. So an EL enrolled in grades K–2 generates the base funding of $6,800 plus an additional 20 percent for his or her district, for a total per-pupil allocation of $8,160. Unfortunately, the LCFF has not yet translated into greater equity for ELs across the state due to differences in how districts interpret the law. One reason for the less than stellar results is that even though districts are allocated additional funds for ELs, they are not actually required to spend the money on these students, said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, Executive Director of Californians Together in an MPI webinar related to the paper.
There is also scant research on how much it costs to adequately educate EL students. Many states have commissioned cost studies to guide the level of funding provided to local districts. Cost studies seek to uncover how much it costs to provide an adequate education and/or the level of funding necessary to produce certain outcomes. However, very few cost studies have included a focus on EL students. And many jurisdictions that use weighted-funding systems determine weights based on the money available rather than on the actual cost of educational programs and services. The reality, as Sugarman points out, is that “administrators responsible for district and school budgeting are focused on how to use scarce resources and balance the necessary tradeoffs rather than on creating a plan that reflects ideal pedagogical choices and then applying the exact dollar amount to cover it.”
Solutions to these problems are anything but clear-cut. Sugarman suggests that a starting point is to improve research on the costs of EL education and on variables that can impact costs, such as differences in student characteristics. To that end, she also recommends that states develop differentiated funding systems to account for the variability of needs in the EL subgroup — for example, supplementary funding for students who are recent arrivals and have had limited or interrupted educations.
There's no shortage of priorities in EL education discourse. From fights over states' English-only policies to debates over accountability for ELs' performance, there's plenty of argument to go around. But none of these ideas can work if they aren't supported with adequate resources.
This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team's work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select "DLL National Work Group Newsletter."