Though English language learners constitute 7 percent of the public school population in Rhode Island, the Ocean State is currently one of only four states that do not have designated funding for English language learners.
Gov. Gina Raimondo submitted a revised education funding formula to the Rhode Island legislature in February that seeks to increase funding and support for ELL students. The revised formula was informed by recommendations from a 29-member education working group appointed by Raimondo.
English language learners are defined as students who are enrolled in an English as a Second Language program at a public school.
An achievement gap exists between ELL and non-ELL students, said Elliot Krieger, public information officer for the Rhode Island Department of Education. In 2013, 25 percent of fourth grade ELL students were proficient in English language reading, compared to 75 percent of non-ELL students, he added. Though ELL students have seen progress over recent years on standardized test results, so have their non-ELL counterparts. Since the former’s improvements have not outpaced the latter’s, the gap remains, Krieger said.
“There’s an issue of capacity” because many ELL students are concentrated in low-income areas, which can put a strain on the resources of the ESL programs in those districts, said Anna Cano Morales, director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University.
The previous funding formula used poverty as a proxy for ELL students, said Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.
“There should be two proxies: a proxy for ELL and a proxy for low-income students,” Morales said. “Poverty is not necessarily correlated to learning a language,” she added, noting that there are affluent children in Rhode Island for whom English is not a first language.
But funding for ELL could be vulnerable to budgetary concerns and may not make it into the eventual budget formula that the legislature passes. “Everything is on the table when it comes to passing a state budget,” Morales said.
If the legislature enacts the formula as it stands, the state will give extra funding to the ESL programs that already exist but will not impose regulations regarding the types of ESL support programs that districts must offer, Duffy said.
But the challenge of providing for ELL students goes further than designating funding to existing programs, Morales said. “The funding formula doesn’t necessarily cover innovation,” she said, adding that school systems should think about dual language and global citizenship programs.
ELL students in Rhode Island speak a total of 85 languages, according to RI Kids Count. Most ESL programs are taught with the assistance of teacher aides, who can translate course material for students on a case-by-case basis, Duffy said. But rural school districts may have a more difficult time offering a robust ESL program because they have fewer students and a more difficult time acquiring resources, he added.
Morales noted that resources for Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking students may be easier for school systems to acquire than those for less commonly spoken languages, but added that the challenges involved in accommodating ELL students are not just a matter of providing translators for a variety of languages. Rather, the plight of ELL students in Rhode Island is made difficult in part because “it’s concentrated in urban-poor districts,” she said.
Additionally, many ELL students may have intersectional identities that need to be considered when addressing the achievement gap between ELL students and their non-ELL counterparts, Morales said. Refugees, for example, have often experienced trauma and need more than language acquisition to feel comfortable in their educational environments, she said. Their “mental health needs to be addressed as much as English language learning,” she added.