The education of students learning to grasp the English language is getting fresh attention at the State Capitol — in no small part because of the fiscal pressures being placed on school districts.
Statewide, expenditures outpaced revenue by $100 million in 2016-17, forcing school systems to find ways to cover the deficits. The shifting of funds — known in education circles as a cross subsidy — is central, too, to the fight over soaring special-education costs.
On Tuesday, the education funding debate begins taking shape when Gov. Tim Walz releases his first biennial budget. In the state House, the education finance committee has held over for possible inclusion in its omnibus bill a proposal to boost districts' English language learner (ELL) funding.
Rep. Kaohly Her, DFL-St. Paul, the bill's chief author, is a former ELL student herself. So, too, is Be Vang, principal of Mississippi Creative Arts School in St. Paul. Vang testified in favor of the bill and of the need for more teachers and bilingual aides who can work past barriers to bring out a child's strengths.
"Students may come with a language gap. But they don't come with a cognitive gap," Vang said last week.
Vang's school serves as a Language Academy for kids who have been in the United States for less than a year. It also educates others who need special help to build English skills. That is about 300 English language learners altogether, yet Vang has only five ELL teachers at her K-5 school. One devotes half her day to pullout sessions with Language Academy students. Vang also must share a Spanish-speaking aide with another school. The aide switches full days at the two sites to avoid losing minutes to midday travel time.
"Families will call, and we have to say, 'He's over at the other school. You'll have to call tomorrow,' " Vang said. "That's real sad."
On her wall are graphics of Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments results. People will ask her why the scores are low, she said, and Vang replies, "If we give students the services they need, our test scores would be better."
Tough conversations are being had elsewhere, too.
At Faribault Public Schools, Superintendent Todd Sesker is taking in students who have been in refugee camps — most if not all of whom are SLIFE (students with limited or interrupted formal education) students. To new arrivals who are 14 or 15 years old, he said, the message is clear: It could take you five to six years to graduate. The district's graduation rates, in turn, have taken a hit.
In the Big 9 Conference, Sesker told the House panel, Faribault ranks No. 1 in the number of ELL students and last on the graduation front.
"It causes havoc with our Realtors," he said. "You do your best to explain."
The district is committed to its English learners. In 2013, voters passed a levy including funding for an ELL director. The district has seen success, and it has changed lives, Sesker said. But it had to fill a $1.4 million funding gap in 2016-17 and may find it difficult to sustain progress without more funding, he said.
Waseca Public Schools draws children from migrant families filling jobs at the local Birds Eye packing plant, Superintendent Tom Lee said. He's envious of schools that can find bilingual staff members. Accompanying him at the House hearing was student Cassandra Salinas. She spoke of the confidence she achieved through the district's ELL program and her success in landing on the high school honor roll. She held up a newspaper listing the honorees to prove it.
According to the state Department of Education, Waseca spent about $740,000 on its ELL programming in 2016-17, yet received only about $26,501 from the state.
In St. Paul, Vang said she'd like to upgrade her staffing to five ELL teachers plus a full-time Language Academy instructor. She continues to worry over what takes precedence in any given situation: the academic needs of students or support provided to parents.
During a pullout session last Friday, Language Academy teacher Anna Grussendorf had a small group of first- and second-graders identifying foods they like by creating movies on iPads. The children were delighted to hear their voices recorded. Spurring on one girl, Grussendorf said, "Me gusta … ?" The girl replied, "I like French fries!"
The funding proposal presented to the House education finance panel would increase aid statewide from $59 million to $143 million — "a big ask," Her acknowledged to House colleagues.
Any increase would help, however, she added.
Reflecting on her own experience as a refugee from Laos, Her said she realized at an early age how important it was to master English. She remembers, too, when English speakers first began appearing in her dreams.