Is Education for Pre-K–5 ELs Equitable? (Part 2)

In my last blog, I talked about the inequities of the learning environment for English learners. This discussion included class size, grouping, the number of schools serviced by the ESL teacher, and the size and location of teaching space. In this blog, I would like to talk about the inequitable funding and programs for ELs.

Background on federal policies affecting English learners

An important Supreme Court decision, declaring that ELs have the right to the same education as their English-speaking classmates, is the Lau vs. Nichols decision. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1974 on Lau vs.Nichols, a case filed by Chinese families in California against unequal educational opportunities. In the words of Justice William Douglas, “students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.”  Sink or Swim instruction for ELs is a violation of their civil rights.

How ESL programs are funded

States are required to fund an adequate education for all students. (“Adequate” in this context means “sufficient.”) The result of all this is that funding for ELs should encompass a sum on top of the money dedicated for “basic education” for all students. Some federal money is supplied to supplement the budget for ELs though “No Child Left Behind.” In 1970,  The Office of Civil Rights issued a Title VI policy on the education of language minority students because many school districts were not adequately funding programs for ELs.

Are programs for English learners adequately funded in 2014?

I believe that public schools are not adequately funded in general in 2014, so it follows that  programs for ELs are also underfunded.  The Common Core requires more than the basic education that is currently funded. Public school funding has been slashed across the United States, and school districts are in the position of having to meet the Common Core Standards with less money. This reduction in public school funding affects students with special needs, including ELs. Not all ELs have the same educational needs, but the supplementary money from the federal government for each student is the same. This is especially true for beginning ELs, and especially those with limited formal education.

Programs for students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE)

The goal of most ESL programs, including ESL pull-out, collaborative ESL programs (where ESL teachers push into the classroom), and structured immersion models is to teach ELs to work in English. These programs work well for ELs who are at the intermediate level. The disparities come mainly when school districts educate beginning ELs with limited or interrupted formal education.

A significant number of ELs in the United States come from non-literacy-oriented homes where parenting practices are also not geared for the development of literacy. There are distinct differences between ELs from these homes and those that come from literacy-oriented backgrounds. What must be considered first when ELs enter school is their literacy orientation. The literacy background of the ELs in a school district should affect how that district decides to create an optimal learning environment for them. Beginning ELs who have limited formal education need a program that is specialized to their needs.

School districts must look at the overall progress of ELs in U.S. schools, which is very poor. Most are performing half as well as their native English-speaking peers and a significant number drop out of school. We need to develop and fund the programs for students from non-literacy-oriented homes differently than we do those from literacy-oriented homes.
It is paramount for EL educators to be proactive in addressing the needs of ELs from the moment they first enter school, whether this is in kindergarten or high school. The absence of comprehensive and specialized programs for ELs from non-literacy-oriented homes contributes heavily to the failures that are occurring in U.S. education. We must begin to focus on this area before we can even begin to hope to close the achievement gap that exists in the United States.



Norton Pierce, B.  (1995). Social identity, investment, and language learning.  TESOL Quarterly, 29, 9–31.

Zacarian, D. & Haynes, J. (2012) The essential guide for educating beginning English learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Zacarian, D. (2011). Transforming schools for English learners: A comprehensive framework for school leaders.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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