View from Lodi, CA: Guess Who'll Pay For The Coming "English Learner" Disaster

If you argued that passing school bonds was essential in order to provide a decent education to hundreds of thousands of California K-12 students, then you're elated with early March results.

Of the 76 measures on the ballot, 65 passed. An additional $6.8 billion now goes into the till for school construction funds.

Proposition 39, which allowed school districts to lower the majority needed to approve bonds from 2/3 to 55%, played a starring role. Of the 65 winning measures, 39 passed because of the reduced margin required for victory.

Only one of the four measures using the old standards passed and seven using the 55% margin failed.

The Lodi Unified School District was one of the beneficiaries of Proposition 39. Measure K squeaked by with a 57% margin.

Observers of the California's K-12 public school system know that the recent successes at the polls don't make a dent in the long-term challenges. Before the first cornerstone is laid for the news schools, a cry for more will be heard.

For the foreseeable future, school enrollments will rise for one reason: the ever-increasing population of non-English speakers.

Statistics available at the California Department of Education (www.ca.gov) show that nearly 600,000 new "English Learners" — or ELs in education parlance—enrolled in K-12 schools in the last decade. That represents about 65% of total new enrollments.

In the Lodi Unified School District, 75% of enrollment growth over the last 10 years is designated EL.

Nearly 25% of all California public school children have a limited grasp of English. And while total enrollment in California school has increased by 50 over the last two decades, the number of limited English proficiency students has risen by 300%.

The nation has 3.4 million students designated EL; 41% live in California.

Last month, the Public Policy Institute of California (www.ppic.org) issued a new report with some alarming statistics even for those well acquainted with the evolving California education crisis.

"The Linguistic Landscape of California Schools" by Sonia Tafoya  [Read it in PDF] begins with an overview of what the large block of non-English speakers means to California.

During the 1998-99 school year, 45% of English Learners were in K-3; 24%, 4th-6th; 12%, 7th-8th and 17%, 9th-12th

During the K-3 years when teachers must build an educational foundation, they are distracted by having to cope with large numbers of ELs.

Among the hurdles facing administrators when dealing with English Learners is the need to provide specialized curriculum and to find qualified teachers. English Learners, especially older students with little or no academic training, fare poorly without—or even despite of—intervention.

Poverty rates among English Learners are high. Different ethnicities have their own racial, cultural and linguistic obstacles. These variables add another layer to demands on the teacher's precious classroom time.

Since 1981, the number of English Learners has increased in every region of California. The San Joaquin Valley had 27, 263 ELs in 1981; in 2000, 168,064. That is a 516% increase since in 20 years.

But a 516% increase is only good enough for 5th place among all California regions. Those finishing with higher percentage increases are, in order, the Inland Empire (656%); Sacramento (596%); the Mountain Region (543%) and the North Coast (456%).

Spanish-speaking English Learners remain the dominant group. They have increased from 76% of the total in 1981 to 82% in 2000. Growing numbers of English Learners are found among native speakers of Russian, Ukrainian, Urdu and Punjabi.

Speakers of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong and Lao, while still substantial in total numbers, have either leveled off or are in decline.

What this means is that as long as large numbers of non-English speakers continue to enroll in the California public school system, taxpayers will always be asked to fund more construction projects. Schools and teachers will be in short supply indefinitely.

The system will, at all times, be strained.

Political promises of revamping education or insistence that greater teacher accountability will assure classroom success can be ignored.

As for the students, the long-range picture is mixed. Many ELs lag behind native speakers academically even after they are designated as fluent.

For those students who continue to struggle with English regardless of their designation, economic opportunities after high school are limited.

The Public Policy Institute's study makes clear that serving the English Learners of California, once limited to large urban areas, is a growing, statewide problem.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.