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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Schools can't put price tag on English

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

893 SL students don't speak English as a native language, learning takes 7-10 years.

When Gov. Tom Vilsack signed legislation making English the official language in Iowa, it was with this condition: That the Legislature put another $1.2 million toward teaching English to immigrants.

The House has approved a bill. The Senate has not yet acted.

However, many educators believe more funding is needed. It takes many students longer than three years to complete English as a Second Language courses, or English Language Learner (ELL) as it is called in the Storm Lake School District. However, three years is when the state stops paying school districts for the program.

That means school districts have to pick up a larger share of the cost, said Larry Sigel, school finance director for the Iowa Association of School Boards.

"We believe the weighting should accurately reflect what the true costs are that the districts are experiencing," Sigel said.

In the Storm Lake School District, 893 of the district's 1,883 students are classified as ELL students, says Superintendent Bill Kruse. Students are identified as ELL students when English is not the first language spoken at home.

"That doesn't mean these students cannot or do not understand English," Kruse said.

Current enrollment figures show 457 Storm Lake students are in the ELL program. Of those, 244 are first-year students, 122 second-year students and 91 of them third-year students, Kruse said.

Those are the figures used to determine additional state funding, based on a weighting of 1.19 per student. Currently, the district receives an additional $391,777 per year.

Under proposed legislation, that weighting would increase to 1.22 per student. Based on the proposed weighting, the Storm Lake district would receive another $61,859 in additional funding.

That would not affect the district until the 2003-2004 school year, however, and could vary depending on counts then, Kruse said.

While the current sum seems large, Kruse said it cannot all be used to hire additional ELL staff.

"The simple thing to do is multiply the cost per student and say, 'Geez, we have an additional $391,000,'" Kruse said. "We just don't use every penny to hire additional staff - there are auxiliary services in regular education, too."

The district is accountable for every dollar, Kruse said, but putting a single price tag on ELL is not easy. Some of it is also used to supplement classrooms and other teachers where ELL programming is needed.

The state currently pays school districts a 19 percent premium for each student who needs English classes. Under the bill approved by the Iowa House, that would increase to 22 percent.

School officials said they appreciate the increase, but would just as soon see the three-year cap lifted as have the state provide a higher premium.

To extend the cap to four years would cost another $2.5 million. To extend it to five years would cost about $5 million.

Iowa Rep. Dave Millage, R-Bettendorf, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said as far as he is concerned, capping the formula at three years has been a financial issue only.

"The money at the state level has been very tight the past few years, and we just could not afford to put it in the budget," he said.

Kruse said it takes students longer than three years to learn the language. "Most of our kids come together with very little English skills, and research says it takes 7 to 10 years to learn how to speak and do academic work," he said.

The storm Lake district may benefit more not from the additional funding, but from allowing state ELL funding into a fourth or fifth year.

"Students in the program longer would be the more realistic approach," Kruse said, noting time is also needed for students to learn English. "This isn't just a dollars type of program."

Across the nation, 74 percent of children in English language courses make the transition to regular classrooms after three years, said John Ovard of the U.S. Education Department's Office of English Language Acquisition.

The Associated Press with reports from the Pilot-Tribune.

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