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Why can’t they just teach their kids English?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Of all the grumpy things that people say about immigrants, one of the more unusual is that they don’t sit their kids down on arrival and teach them English. But that’s one of several points made by Christopher Paslay in an op-ed earlier this week.

Before I get to Mr. Paslay’s exact words, I should mention that I agree with at least one of his arguments, which is that educators are often expected to produce miraculous results even though they haven’t been given the resources and support that they need in order to do their job. That’s so, so true – and it’s one reason why the continuing (and thus far, rather successful) effort to make the state education budget more adequate and equitable are so important.

But back to immigrants. Here’s what concerns Mr. Paslay:

"If you just moved to this country and haven’t taught your son a word of English, there will be accommodations. The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers for him."

So let’s say you just got here from Latvia, or Uruguay, or Senegal. You want to do the right thing and teach your son English. But there’s one small problem: you don’t speak English yourself. After all, you just arrived from a non-English-speaking country.

That’s why we ask schools to provide English-as-a-second-language instruction to children who come to America from other countries. It’s not exactly a new idea, having been around for a century or two. Courts have repeatedly held that it’s required by two federal laws, the Equal Education Opportunities Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and there’s a Pennsylvania state regulation on the same point. And, except in Paslay’s column, I’ve almost never seen the idea attacked; even the fiercest of “English-only” advocates are passionate on the importance of teaching English to new arrivals.

On, then, to the assertion that “The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers for [your son].” In fact, the District spends a total of $6,960.63 per year, per student (according to 2007-08 figures, the most recent available), for the entire instructional program – so if we assume a seven-period day, two periods of which are devoted to ESOL (which would be unusual), we’re looking at maybe $2,000. Moreover, since that ESOL class replaces “regular” English, there’s a partial wash in terms of cost.

At this rate, your son would have to spend fifty years in ESOL before he would have consumed even the first of the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” that he is accused of costing the system.

Finally, a comment on those “special English-as-a-second-language teachers” who, Mr. Paslay suggests, wouldn’t be needed if immigrant parents did their job. I agree on one point – those teachers, like so many others, really are special. They’re folks who have acquired the skills (and have the commitment) necessary to help kids from other countries quickly learn to speak, read, write, and understand English, not just well enough to function on the street but to a level at which they can succeed academically.

In a future column, a look at another one of Mr. Paslay’s issues, which involves parents who fail to prevent their children from having disabilities.

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