On Wednesday, the Texas House will take up what could be the biggest change to public school funding in over a decade. House Bill 3 would pump $9 billion into the state’s public education system.
But HB 3 doesn’t provide a significant funding boost for educating English Language Learners, also called ELLs. That funding has been flat since the 80s, and some parents and advocates are worried a huge number of children in Texas are being shortchanged.
In 1980, when Patricia Cantu started kindergarten in Houston, there wasn’t much bilingual education in schools.
“And I walked in and it was only English – that’s all it was. I remember specifically singing ABCs and not having a clue what they were talking about. I remember just feeling lost and how helpless that feeling was as a four- or five-year-old,” Cantu says.
Today, that experience makes Cantu uniquely qualified for her job. She leads the second language department in Alief ISD, southwest of Houston.
“And I’m so grateful that we do have programs in place and that are required. Bilingual programs are required in the state of Texas to ensure the needs of children that speak Spanish,” Cantu says.
Current research shows schools need about 50 percent more in per-pupil funding for students learning English. Right now, the state gives schools an extra 10 percent per student. It’s been that way since Cantu was in school, and the House’s school finance proposal won’t change it much.
“I do worry because what we do is about equity for all and our school board is very, very focused on making sure that all children get the different resources and interventions that they deserve,” Cantu says.
In the last few decades, the number of children learning English in Texas has skyrocketed. In Alief ISD, more than 40 percent of the students are English learners. Statewide, they make up one fifth of all public school students.
Like the four-year-olds in a bilingual pre-kindergarten class where they learn core lessons in their home language. On this morning, the sixteen kids gather around a rainbow-colored rug. Their teacher, Atanea Raptis, holds up flashcards. They call out the word, counting syllables, all in Spanish.
Raptis says when many of them started pre-K, they didn’t know many words in any language. Now, they have a strong vocabulary in Spanish, and Raptis sees them speaking English with other kids on the playground.
“It’s crazy, it’s crazy how much they grow in just a few months,” Raptis says.
Classrooms like these are essential, says Morgan Craven with the advocacy group, Intercultural Development Research Association. Craven is disappointed lawmakers aren’t allocating more for English language learners.
“We can’t leave behind such a large and important group of students who have so much to offer to the state,” Craven says.
Craven points out the bill only increases funding for students enrolled in dual language programs. That’s where they learn half in English and half in another language, usually Spanish. Even native English speakers in those programs would get more money.
“We know approximately 80 percent of the English learners across the state of Texas are not in dual language programs,” Craven says. “They are in some other type of bilingual education or ESL program and those students have the same low funding weight that was established in early 1980s, so they’re not getting any additional funds at HB 3.”
Craven is also concerned because the bill would erase all spending rules for bilingual education, districts won’t have to invest in English learners – students like Maria Bolaños’s four children. The family lives in southwest Houston. And all four kids have taken bilingual classes.
In Spanish, Bolaños says that being bilingual gives her children an advantage, personally and for their future careers. But, she says, watching from her oldest daughter to her youngest, she’s seen how the program has been cut over the years.
And when she heard Texas lawmakers could make funding for English learners uneven, she was upset.
Bolaños told me it’s not right for other children who want to learn another language to get more money than her own, when they have the same rights to an equal education.
But in the Alief school district, it’s not necessarily all bad news.
Patricia Cantu says they’re shifting away from bilingual classes, and expanding dual language programs.
“And so what they’re doing is creating a focus on creating a bilingual, biliterate, bicultural child, so you’re learning both languages concurrently,” Cantu says.
She’s still concerned that state lawmakers may take away spending rules for English language programs. the Texas House is expected to debate and vote on the measure this week.