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Impact of language bill on area schools yet unknown

May 29, 2001|By JESSICA ROCHA, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — The House passed an education bill Wednesday to significantly boost funding for English-language education, but how this might affect smaller districts with large numbers of children receiving English-language instruction, like those in Imperial County, is unclear.

While the bill proposed a funding increase of almost two-thirds to $750 million for English-language development, some experts worry about provisions that they said would spread the money too thin, push students out of language-assistance programs before they are ready and make recent immigrants "invisible" to educators.

The House bill would eliminate the federal government's competitive bilingual education grants given directly to school districts, instead giving the money to the states for distribution, mainly based on the number of students assessed as limited-English proficient. The Senate education bill, which has not yet come to a vote, would not eliminate the competitive grant system unless at least $700 million were appropriated for bilingual education.

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Some administrators of bilingual education programs worry the House proposal would threaten programs in schools with smaller or newer populations of limited-English students, where a large initial investment might be needed to launch an English-language program.

"The dilution of funds could severely jeopardize the quality of programs," said Delia Pompa, executive director of the National Association of Bilingual Education. "Under the formula, if you have a small number of children in your district, you'll get some money," but not enough to hire a teacher, buy materials or develop a program, she said.

California is home to 36 percent, or 1.5 million, of the nation's estimated 4.1 million students receiving English-language instruction in public schools. This year California school districts received about 35 percent of Washington's appropriations, or $107 million from the federal government for English-language programs, compared with $104 million of its own funds for bilingual education this year.

If the federal money were divvied up by the number of students needing English-language development alone, Pompa said, California's funding level would probably stay about the same, but it would still receive far more than any other state. Forty-eight percent of Imperial County's 33,000 students receive some form of English-language instruction, but just four local districts received federal money this year. Through competitive grants, Calexico Unified, the Imperial County Office of Education, Brawley Elementary and Westmorland Union applying jointly, and Central Union High School received a combined $1.5 million from Washington.

Brawley Elementary and Westmorland Union, for example, received $432,000 from the federal government this year toward English-language programs for 1,536 limited-English students. That money was part of a five-year, $2.3 million grant. In contrast, the state this year contributed $320,000 to Brawley's limited-English programs.

"When you can compete for the grants, you can make far more significant projects with larger funding," said Terri Decker, Brawley Elementary's director of special projects and student services. "You can do an enormous reform effort that you can get rolling and sustain after the grant ends."

For instance, part of the grant paid for hiring trainers so the districts could certify their own teachers instead of paying more to certify the teachers elsewhere. Decker said that type of longer-term program would never have gotten off the ground without a larger grant.

"There would be a lot less teacher training and teacher preparation," she said.

Decker said 8 percent of the students were moving to English-only instruction earlier than anticipated, and a whole fourth-grade limited-English class was eliminated because so many third-grade students tested as fluent.

"Now everyone is going to get some money, but the effect may be diluted," Decker added.

Heber Elementary, with the county's highest percentage enrollment of limited-English students at 81 percent, did not receive any federal dollars for its language development programs. Patty Marcial, project coordinator for the Heber district, said the district hadn't applied for federal English-language money for about four years because it lacked the administrative capacity to do the applications.

"We don't have the resources to actually put into the writing of the proposal," Marcial said, adding it's usually larger school districts that get the grants because they can dedicate more people to applying for them.

Marcial is not complaining. She said there are always strings attached to accepting more money.

"We have enough funding right now," she said. "I'd love to have more money, but I'd love to have more people to help out.

"If I'm given additional money, my question would be who's going to handle it? Do you want to bring in more (projects) when your staff is barely surviving?" Marcial asked.

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