Language gap grows
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 12, 2005


Studies: Schools face increased challenges

Daniel González

Fueled by record immigration, children who have trouble speaking English are among the fastest-growing segments of the school population in Arizona, creating additional challenges for schools here and across the country, two new studies have found.

The vast majority of schoolchildren who can't speak English well enough to pass proficiency tests are mostly segregated in a relatively small number of schools.

Limited-English students also tend to be poor and live in households where little, if any, English is spoken, compounding the challenges for schools at a time when many of them are struggling to meet new federal academic standards, according to the studies by researchers at the Migration Policy Institute and the Urban Institute, two nonpartisan research groups in Washington, D.C.

The studies carry particular relevance in Arizona, one of the few states to ban bilingual education and where the cost of educating the more than 160,000 schoolchildren classified as English-language learners has turned into a political hot potato.

Since 2000, the state has been under a federal court order to increase spending for educating English-language learners. But in May, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed a Republican-backed plan that would have added $13.5 million to the $80 million the state already spends a year on English-learner programs. Napolitano called the plan inadequate. She favors a plan that would add $185 million a year to English-learner programs.

In August, Tim Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, asked a judge to block the state from getting federal highway funds until Napolitano and the Legislature agree on a plan. The judge has yet to rule.

In 2000, Arizona voters passed Proposition 203, a ballot measure that banned bilingual education and required schools to use mostly English immersion programs to teach children with limited English proficiency.

At the time, advocates of the ballot measure contended English immersion would help improve academic achievement among English-learners, but so far that hasn't happened, said Eugene Garcia, dean of the college of education at Arizona State University.

A 2005 report by researchers at Arizona State University found that English-learners in Arizona continue to perform poorly in school even after the passage of Proposition 203, Garcia said.

"The achievement gap between kids who come to school not speaking English vs. those who come speaking English is the same and may have grown," Garcia said.

Kent P. Scribner, superintendent of the Isaac School District, said schools in districts such as his with large numbers of English-learners will have difficulty meeting new federal academic standards without additional money for English-learner programs.

The Isaac School District serves largely Latino immigrant neighborhoods in west Phoenix. More than half of its 9,000 students are classified as English learners, and 93 percent are poor, Scribner said.

Currently, the state provides an additional $360 per English-learner student, far below the $1,200 to $2,500 recommended by a court-ordered cost study, he said.

Additional funding, he said, would allow schools to create more English-learner programs, reduce class sizes and provide more training for teachers.

The studies released Sept. 30 by the Urban Institute and the Migration Policy Institute sought to measure the size and growth of the school population of English-learners and to determine how that population is affecting schools trying to meet standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Relying largely on census data, the studies found that Arizona has one of the largest and fastest-growing populations of English-language learners of any state in the country.

In 2000, there were 56,000 students in Arizona in Grades pre-kindergarten to 5 classified as English-learners, or 12 percent of all pre-kindergarten to Grade 5 children, the fourth-highest share of all states. Only California, Texas and New Mexico had higher shares of English-learners.

In Arizona, the number of English-learners in Grades pre-kindergarten through 5 grew by 80 percent during the 1990s and by 88 percent in Grades 6 to 12 during the same period, the studies found.

Nationwide, the studies found that half of all children classified as English-learners were born in the United States, including English-learners in high school, meaning they had spent their entire lives attending school in this country but had failed to learn English adequately.

They also found that English learners tend to be highly segregated with 70 percent attending 10 percent of U.S. schools, mostly in urban settings, said Randolph Capps, a researcher at the Urban Institute.

What's more, most schoolchildren with limited English proficiency attend schools most likely to fail federal standards and face sanctions.

"What we don't know is whether that is a good thing," said Michael Fix, a researcher at the Migration Policy Institute.

That's because underperforming schools with high percentages of poor, minority and limited-English students qualify for extra funding under No Child Left Behind, which could lead to more programs to help children learn English, Fix said.

The No Child Left Behind Act holds schools accountable for student performance, including English proficiency, and requires districts to separately report test scores for minority students, poor children and those with limited English.

In 2000, there were 3.4 million school children in the United States with limited English proficiency, or 6 percent of the total school-age population, the report said.

The most common language they spoke was Spanish.

Between 1980 and 2000, the share of limited English speaking students nationally in pre-kindergarten to Grade 5 rose from 4.7 percent to 7.4 percent, while the share in Grades 6 to 12 rose from 3.1 to 5.5 percent, according to the studies. The growth was fueled by record immigration.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8312.