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Desert Companion

Education: English broken here

ELL funding gets lost in translation

State Sen. Moises Denis is nearing 50, but he remembers what it was like to sit in an elementary school classroom, years behind his fellow students in reading. Denis was born in the United States but his parents are Cuban. He didn’t speak English when he started first grade in Las Vegas and didn’t read at grade level for another five years. 

There were no English Language Learner specialists at the time. “I remember being frustrated,” he says. That he persevered is a testimony to the support of his parents. “A lot of Latino students never make it that far,” he notes.

A recent Brookings Institution report makes clear that Denis was a fortunate exception to the rule. It points out that more than 5 million students across the nation struggle with schoolwork because they’re still learning English. For many of those who don’t catch up by third grade, the report notes, the gap between them and other students will persist throughout their educational careers. The same report recommends expanding funding for English-language programs that have proven effective as a policy for closing future achievement gaps.

Nonetheless, faced with overwhelming threats to the education budget from kindergarten through college, the 2011 Legislature could barely consider the issue. Nevada emerged from the session as still being one of less than 10 states in the nation without a weighted, set-aside funding formula for its students who speak English as a second language. (One bill, SB 11, was supposed to tackle the way the state funds education. But instead, a version passed that merely proposes to study the method used for setting budgets.)

Support comes from

This despite the fact that, come September, 47,000 students, or almost 1 of every 6 students in the Clark County School District, will be in an ELL program. Nearly 9 of every 10 of them speak Spanish as a first language, and Hispanic students, now more than 40 percent of the total student population, have been driving growth in the district for at least a decade. Not having addressed the need to create the sort of funding formula that states with growing Hispanic populations like Florida and Texas have successfully applied “is sort of like if we had ignored the need to build the I-215,” says Joyce Haldeman, the associate superintendent who represented the district in Carson City.  

“ELL has been invisible for 20 years or longer,” says Andres Ramírez, of Ramírez Group, a political and communications consulting firm. “Under a different set of circumstances, this would be the issue that the Hispanic caucus fights for,” he adds. “But here … the whole system is under attack.”

Before this session, state Sen. Ruben Kihuen was one of only three Hispanic legislators in a state where more than 1 in 4 residents is Hispanic. Kihuen says that a newly formed Hispanic caucus of eight legislators not only felt it necessary to defend education on all fronts during the session, but also was consumed with other issues of importance to the state’s Hispanic population, including immigration and redistricting.

“A lot of these students are bright,” he says. “If you give them the appropriate tools, they can become productive citizens.”

Those tools cost money, however. Craig Stevens, director of government relations for the Nevada State Education Association, says states like Florida multiply the amount being spent on each student by 1.5 (or another figure) in order to fund ELL students. “Not every student is funded the same because they are not the same,” he says.

Denis has heard constituents say that funding such programs is expensive. “But it is a lot less expensive than leaving a student on their own,” he says, which can result in high dropout rates and other social costs down the road.

Sylvia Lazos, a UNLV Boyd School of Law professor, spoke at a May 5 conference on ELL policies and programs at the university. “I think the state is still dodging a bullet,” she says, referring to federal law that requires school districts to adequately fund underserved populations. She cites the case of Arizona, where a lawsuit resulted in the federal government forcing Tucson’s school district to invest in ELL.

Lazos says the issue is also important to Nevada’s economy. “Our labor force is increasingly going to be first-generation U.S.-born children of immigrant, working-class families,” she says.

Norberta Anderson, director of the ELL program at CCSD, is facing a 20 percent cut in the $20 million from her annual budget that comes from the district’s general fund. She will lose all but 10 of her 160 ELL specialists. She will also gain 51 teachers whose responsibilities will include assisting with teaching English.

“Without appropriate funding,” she says, “we’re slowly going to deplete the workforce of the state.”