The Debate Over ELL Funding

About a month ago, Senator Michael Bennet, a democrat from Colorado, introduced the English Learning and Innovation Act (see S. 1158). This act would provide grant money that would be used to improve programs to teach English to English learners. I found this piece of legislation refreshing amid all the calls for anti-immigration laws and states like Arizona and Georgia enacting such laws that have families fleeing in fear that they will be discovered when they enroll their children for school (see Georgia Immigration Law).

As I see it, the fundamental difference between the anti-immigration arguments and legislation such as Bennet’s is the view of the majority of English learners as either illegal immigrants or legal citizens. So which is it? According to Bennet in a post on The Hill’s Floor Action Blog:

there were 4.7 million English learners in U.S. schools as of the 2007-2008 school year, which is about 10 percent of all students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Just over three-quarters of elementary school English learners are U.S. citizens, and more than half of English learners in public schools are second or third-generation citizens (Kasperowicz, June 9, 2011)

This makes me stop and think about my experience with ELLs. I would have to agree that the majority of English learners I’ve worked with over the years were either children born in this country from illegal immigrants, or later generation ELLs. Of course, depending on where one teaches, one may see a much larger percentage of ELLs that are indeed illegal.

However, Senator Bennet’s numbers are intriguing and make me want to dig a little deeper. If the majority of our ELL population is in fact legal, then why the backlash from the American public that it is an unwanted drain on our economy to teach them English? Is it the case of the few “bad apples” spoiling it for everyone else? Granted, just because many English learners in our public schools were born in this country does not mean that their parents are legal citizens. Maybe this is the rub? In order to give the children their rights as American citizens we must implicitly support their illegal parents? The alternative would be to either split families apart or have thousands of U.S. citizens sent back to countries they don’t belong to when their parents flee.

It is an interesting conundrum, and one that will not be solved easily. However, I do believe that if Senator Bennet’s information is reliable, we must look further into this issue and find a way to improve the face of ELLs in our schools. When one looks at it from this perspective, it becomes less of an anti-immigration issue and more about improving education for our nation’s children.

About Heidi Casper

Heidi Casper
Heidi Casper has been teaching in the ESL field for about 15 years. She’s had the privilege of teaching all ages of language learners, from kindergarten to seniors in high school. She speaks Spanish, which has been invaluable in building relationships with Spanish-speaking families between home and school. That skill also provided her with the opportunity to spend a short time teaching at a private school in Mexico, as well as to present at an early childhood conference in Costa Rica. What she loves about this field is the opportunity to meet so many fascinating students and families from around the world. She’s certain that she’s learned more from her students over the years than she could have possibly taught them. She is currently working on a master’s degree in ESL and looks forward to sharing her thoughts and experiences with others in the field.
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2 Responses to The Debate Over ELL Funding

  1. Heidi Casper Heidi says:

    Thanks for the comment Margaret!

    “how foolish it would be to deny ELL to learners who may have arrived in this country with immigrant or refugee parents and have not been born here”

    I couldn’t agree with you more on this one! Hopefully the comments in my post did not come off the wrong way. I believe in equal and funded education for ALL children in our school systems whether they were born here or not. However, there are many anti-immigration folks who would love to stop paying for the education of these students who are not legal. In their minds, if you don’t speak English, you must not be a citizen; following that line of thinking, federal funds allocated towards ESL programs are being spent on non-citizens. My question in the post was directed at Senator Bennet’s comments, who says that the majority of ELL students are in fact legal. While this may be the case in Colorado where he’s from, I’m really curious to find out how close to the truth that is for our nation as a whole. If this truly is the case, then an argument could be built that little of our nation’s school resources are actually spent on illegal immigrants. While I’d like to think this would somewhat mollify the anti-immigration camp, I’m realistic enough to know that it would not.

    Even though federal law already dictates that schools are not allowed to ask the legal status of our students, many undocumented families in states where anti-immigration laws have been passed are scared that when they register their children this fall they will be discovered. Let us hope that the anti-immigration fervor does not erode our ability as teachers to do our job – teach ALL our students, English speaking or not.

  2. Margaret Goka says:

    I teach adults, not children. However, many of my students are parents of school children. In Northern California, where 40% of the households in my area speak a language other than English in the home, how foolish it would be to deny ELL to learners who may have arrived in this country with immigrant or refugee parents and have not been born here. Some children are kept at home and hear only their first language for five years, although they must begin to learn their letters and numbers in English in kindergarten. This is mandated by the state. All of these children need ELL.

    And last, I want to say from personal experience (I was married to someone who was not born in this country), I have never met a “legal immigrant” who remained documented to the letter of the law for 20 consecutive years in this country. We would all become “undocumented” if we had to all jump through the hoops of legal regulations that the “undocumented” have to spend time and treasure obeying.

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