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Will Local Control Funding Help English Learners? The Verdict Is Still Out.

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The ten districts California districts with the largest number of English Language Learners in 2013.  (Map from Ed Trust West using California Department of Education Data.)


(Last week I introduced two important topics.  First, I wrote about building a better support system for California's 1.4-million English Language Learners.  Second, I wrote about the necessity of creating 'Smart Money': recrafting the school district budget making process so that it explicitly links funds and student achievement.  Then Karen Hawley Miles wrote about how districts can make their money more productive.  Today, Carrie Hahnel introduces a new report from Education Trust West that examines how districts have used or not used budget flexibility in support of these vulnerable students.

I recommend reading the EdTrustWest report, particularly its policy recommendations, which are made at the end of the document.  These are likely to shape the debate over EL policy during the coming year.  One of the most provocative, and potentially costly, recommendations is that ELL students continue to receive extra funding after they have been designated as English fluent.  There are two arguments for this policy.  First, even students who have been redesignated as fluent need extra help.  Second, the current funding rules actually provide an economic disincentive to school districts to redesignate English learners as fluent.)


By guest blogger Carrie Hahnel, Education Trust West

In a flurry of activity this past spring and summer, California school districts pulled together their first Local Control and Accountability Plans, the three-year strategic and funding plans now required of each school district, county office of education, and charter school in the state. In most cases, these plans are neither elegant nor easy to read, but they do offer early insights into how the new Local Control Funding Formula might be spurring districts to think differently (or not) about the services they offer to English learners. In a report released today, The Education Trust-West describes the opportunities the new funding formula creates for our state's 1.4-million English learners and shares themes from a review of about a dozen of these LCAPs.

Under LCFF, districts receive additional dollars for each low-income, English learner, or foster youth student. Districts have tremendous flexibility over how to use these funds, but they must document their plans and demonstrate how they will "increase or improve" services for targeted student groups, above and beyond what is offered to all students. This was a game-changing reform for English learner advocates, who gave up the old "Economic Impact Aid" categorical system—and the compliance and oversight that came with it—in exchange for more dollars. This trade is a gamble of sorts. Will the dollars actually flow to the students who generated them? And will the additional flexibility allow districts to innovate and implement more effective programs, breaking past the old model of compliance?

Pegging-new-LCFF-dollars.jpgFrom our early review of LCAPs and interviews with community and district leaders, we see slim evidence of innovation, and more indication of districts adjusting to new forms, new stakeholder engagement requirements, new budgeting and accounting practices, and new definitions (such as "unduplicated pupils" and "annual measurable objectives"). These are important changes that must happen in the first year of a major reform. But English learners may not yet be reaping the benefits of the new dollars or funding freedoms. It remains to be seen whether they will in future years. 

English learner experts like those at The Civil Rights Project suggest districts invest in research-based strategies like offering English learners extended learning time and extracurricular opportunities; expanding access to preschool; providing individualized linguistic and academic supports in the form of tutoring and small-group instruction; offering high-quality bilingual programs; and guaranteeing that English learners can access rigorous, college-preparatory coursework--while also receiving the supports they need to succeed in those classes.

Many of us also see the potential for some additional inventive thinking. For example, districts could use incentives to attract effective bilingual teachers and teachers with English learner expertise to schools with high concentrations of English learners. They could offer all teachers, regardless of content area, high-quality professional development on strategies for serving English learners. And they could redesign the school day or classroom so that students receive a mix of large-group and small-group instruction, intensive one-on-one time, and technology-aided support—with this rotation designed around each student's needs.  

While these strategies may make perfect sense, many districts are caught up in the old regime of compliance and reporting. They are laden with forms and tests: home language surveys, annual language assessments, staff certification forms, federal monitoring, parent notification forms, and more. In many LCAPs, we see funds targeted toward English learners going to support these types of activities. The trouble is, pegging new LCFF dollars against those old—and still required—activities means that English learners aren't actually getting anything new or better.

When we looked at the LCAPs of districts that have posted strong results for English learners, these same themes emerged. Yet, at the same time, they planned to introduce new, promising practices.

  • Hacienda La Puente Unified plans to train counselors and administrators to ensure equitable access to electives, advanced coursework, and appropriate placement into ELD courses.
  • Los Alamitos Unified plans to implement a five-year professional development and coaching plan, which includes training all K-2 teachers in Common Core-aligned reading practices for English learners.
  • Redondo Beach Unified plans to provide extended learning time for targeted English learners.
  • And when describing their LCAP and English learner services, leaders in Selma Unified told us that they have made a deliberate shift away from a compliance-orientation toward an approach focused on ensuring all students get language development and personalized supports throughout the school day and in core instruction.

As California enters the second year of this bold reform called LCFF, we hope and expect to see more of these targeted, strategic, and evidence-based English learner supports. The state can help by connecting districts with quality technical assistance and by sharing best practices. It can also ensure that the LCAP evaluation rubrics, which are in early stages of development, map to evidence-based practices and clear expectations for English learners.

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