EDITORIAL: Extra help in schools where needed

2015-02-15 | San Antonio Express-News

Feb. 15--Students who genuinely need more help should get it. This is the concept behind more money for students in special education, for instance. And it is what fuels the controversy over state school funding generally -- poor school districts under-resourced compared to districts that are rich in property valuation.

But this concept of need dictating extra help should also compel the state to up its funding for one particular subset of students -- English language learners, ELLs. And though major lawsuits seek this end, the state Legislature should do this anyway -- and upping school funding generally -- as a matter of economic necessity.

A recent report, authored by Arizona State University Professor Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos for the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association, demonstrates how short state funding falls for ELL students. Much of the report's data will be unveiled later, but what we know for a certainty is that the state's 863,974 English learners are struggling.

At a symposium recently that previewed the report, one panelist raised a provocative point, as reported in the Express-News by Francisco Vara-Orta.

"Many policymakers continue to see ELLs and Latino children not as 'our own,'" said Rogelio Sáenz, a demographer and dean of the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

We hope this isn't the case but appearances sure make a strong case. Those poor school districts that aren't as well resourced as wealthier districts are heavily Latino and minority, even as the state's demography becomes more heavily Latino -- the state well on its way to becoming majority Latino.

Moreover, while the state funds special education at two to five times that of regular student funding for perfectly legitimate reasons, ELLs receive only 10 percent more -- under a formula unchanged for 31 years.

The fallout: ELL students are more likely to drop out of school, few pass all end-of-course exams and only 8 percent who graduate are considered "college ready." Forty percent of bilingual or English as Second Language, or ESL, teachers in elementary schools are less than fully certified, 35 percent of ESL teachers in the state's secondary schools. And schools with high concentrations of ELL students have higher student-to-teacher ratios.

It is as if the state really doesn't want them to succeed in school and then in life. Allowed to persist, this will dictate economic difficulties ahead once Latino students, already the majority in the state's schools, and ELL students -- 17 percent of all students -- inevitably form a Texas workforce that is majority Latino.

Getting help for students who need it should be a legislative priority, every bit as necessary for the state's economic well being as roads, bridges and water.

Right. This should be about parental responsibility, not just the state's responsibility. This is correct to a point -- and still shortsighted if it results in state inaction.

These parents do want their children to do better than they have and many are fully engaged in their children's educations. Still, parents' lack of academic achievement often affects that of their children. And, in the case of ELL students, parents may not have the language skills to help as much, with homework, for instance.

The literature is full of students who overcome such obstacles. And students from meager circumstances often do better generally than their parents in academic and economic achievement -- even as many don't. But, the current level of achievement, and non-achievement, will not be enough for Texas in the future, and Texas, in any case, should want this to be more than a matter of serendipitous occurrence or the result of herculean effort.

It can happen more reliably with proper funding and resources -- for all students, but extra for ELL students. More help directed to where it's needed.

Sink or swim is a reliable axiom of nature, but it is far less trustworthy as educational policy, which is ultimately about the future of the state's economy.