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Opinion: L.A. Unified Has Financial Incentive Not to Reclassify ELLs

A guest commentary in the Los Angeles Daily News accuses Los Angeles Unified School District of keeping students in programs to learn English because they get extra funds from the federal and state governments to educate them. It also implies the school system keeps students in the category of English-language learners longer than necessary so that the more-fluent students can help bring up the average score of ELLs for purposes of accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Lance T. Izumi, the senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute, uses strong language to make the argument that administrators in Los Angeles schools should be urged to raise the rate that they reclassify students as fluent in English. One way to do this, he writes, "is to change the various laws that create the perverse incentives that keep students in the English-learner ghetto."

Izumi is putting his own spin on the results of a study by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute about reclassification rates for ELLs in L.A., released last month. It found that 29 percent of ELLs in the district aren't reclassified as fluent in English by the 8th grade.

I've been hearing the complaint that California administrators keep ELLs in special programs for financial reasons for nearly a decade, as long as I've been writing about English-language learners for Education Week. Ron Unz, the businessman who financed a campaign that persuaded voters to pass Prop. 227, which curtailed bilingual education in California, made the same complaint back in the late 1990s.

It's true that districts get extra funds in California to educate ELLs. Only 10 states—Arkansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia—don't provide any additional money for ELL students other than what they provide for regular students, according to EPE Research Center data published in Quality Counts 2009.

But that doesn't mean California administrators are keeping ELLs in programs for years for the extra funding. It could be that they just feel the students need the extra help, and they are worried that such students won't do well in mainstream classes if they are reclassified before they have really strong English skills.

But Jack O'Connell, the state's secretary of education, has also expressed concern that a large gap exists between the number of ELLs who are scoring as proficient on the state's English-language proficiency test and the number being reclassified as fluent in English. He's urged school districts to focus on reclassifying more students each year.

Quite a few states have standardized their policies for the criteria that school districts must use to reclassify students as fluent. But California still lets districts set their own criteria for moving ELLs out of special programs into mainstream classrooms.

What do you think the pros and cons are of the standardization of reclassification criteria across a state?

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