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English learners caught in competition for funding

In Pennsylvania, a limited stream of dollars supports services for these students.

Darryl Murphy

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

This year brought some good news for Katie Christ.

“I finally got textbooks!”

That’s a welcome addition to Christ’s high school classroom in Delaware County’s William Penn School District, where she’s taught students who are learning English for 11 years.

But new textbooks are just the start of what she needs for her English learner (EL) classes. For other needed materials – novels and short stories, online language instruction, computers, snacks – she’ll keep doing what she’s always done: find freebies on the internet, borrow from the English or history departments, raise private donations, or pay from her own pocket.

“I don’t mind spending the money when I see the outcomes,” said Christ, who estimates she spends $1,000 of her own money a year and raises about $3,000 more online.

One online source of funds is a website where donors can give to classroom projects. “Without Donors Choose, I wouldn’t be able to do what I want to do,” she said.

And when it comes to the bigger things that only her district can provide – like more staff to support students, more time in the school day to collaborate, or a fully stocked computer cart – she’ll cross her fingers and hope for a better budget next year.

“I only have two computers in the classroom. One of them’s mine,” Christ said. “I had a computer cart, but they couldn’t handle the new updates. They were old when I first got them.”

Only a little support

Christ’s situation reflects the financial challenge that all EL programs face: Districts are legally obligated to provide English learners a range of services, but only a limited stream of dedicated dollars supports those services.

Districts must pay for the vast majority of EL costs from the same general operating budget that funds all student services – leaving these programs vulnerable to the ups and downs of state and local funding.

“The main thing is, when the whole pot gets reduced, it really affects us,” said Allison Still, head of the Philadelphia School District’s Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs.

“There’s less time for common planning, fewer counselors – it effects our ELs like it affects all students.”

Getting responsibilities without funding is nothing unusual, said Frank Bruno, the William Penn District’s director of student services. “We get a lot of state mandates that are unfunded,” he said.

But that leaves districts and principals facing hard decisions as they juggle the needs of English learners with those of the entire school, Bruno said.

Here’s one example: Principals have limited professional development budgets for teachers. They must decide how much to spend on EL issues, even as other needs compete for attention.

“We have testing, we started new reading programs, we have science and math programs – and the teachers need to be trained in that,” Bruno said. “If I’m a principal and I have 50 [English learner] kids and 800 kids total, where’s my emphasis?”

Districts’ only stream of EL-dedicated funding comes through federal Title III grants.

That funding stream is “not a huge amount of money,” said Maura McInerney, an attorney with the Education Law Center. Annual allotments range from $120 to $300 per student, she said.

The limited support is by design; Title III is meant to pay for extras that districts couldn’t otherwise afford.

“You can use Title III funds to supplement, but not supplant your program,” Bruno said. “You can’t buy anything that you normally need in your core program with Title III funds.”

For William Penn, whose 5,400 students include about 170 English learners, Title III typically provides about $35,000 a year – about $200 for each EL. Those funds support a summer language camp – “the staff, the trips, the T-shirts” – but the vast majority of EL-related costs are covered by the district.

Overall, Bruno said, the typical English learner costs William Penn “about a third” more than the typical native speaker. The annual per-pupil cost of a typical William Penn student is about $10,000, he said, while the average EL student costs about $13,000 or more.

It’s a comparable expense to special education, he said, but without the supplemental state funding.

“If the student were in special ed, there are other funds available,” Bruno said. “There are no such funds for EL.”

Expenses can vary

In Philadelphia, the funding story is similar: Title III provides about $3.5 million annually, or about $250 per English learner. That money pays for a summer camp, some professional development for teachers, contracts for some community-based organizations, and a few staff positions (such as curriculum specialists).

The District covers the remaining costs, including classroom materials and 300 teachers for the EL program.

Exactly what those per-pupil costs are depends on each district’s decision about what to offer and how. Pennsylvania law and policy offer only a few concrete guidelines, such as the number of hours of language instruction for students at various levels.

“Our state laws do very little in terms of specific directives and requirements … the numbers of teachers or caseload, the number of content teachers, or the training or instruction hours required,” McInerney said.

Meeting a high standard is by no means cheap. At Philadelphia’s Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School, state funding cuts meant trouble for the school’s plans to provide extensive classroom support.

“Our problem is ESOL students don’t bring with them additional funding,” said FACTS executive director Ellen Somekawa. “We used to be able to make our budget work, but we have had a deficit for the last couple of years.”

Nor are cost-effective services always adequate. The ACLU of Pennsylvania recently sued the Lancaster School District over its decision to send some older EL students to a privately run accelerated-degree program. That outsourcing offered the district modest savings – particularly in pension costs – but a federal judge ruled that the academics fell short of the legal standard and sent the students back to Lancaster’s district-run high school.

“It was very clear to us, and it turned out to be clear to the judge, that this is not an appropriate school for students who are not proficient at English. They need things to go slower – not faster,” said ACLU attorney Vic Walczak.

Philadelphia’s Still says the biggest impact of budget cuts on EL programs is the loss of time; as staff and resources shrink, it becomes harder for EL teachers to collaborate with their non-EL colleagues – an essential task when it comes to helping English learners succeed in regular classrooms.

When Still started her career a decade ago as an English as a Second Language teacher at Northeast High School, her day included common planning time with EL teachers and content teachers, she recalled.

“I would be able to say, ‘I could put some of the specific social studies language in my lesson, the specific math language,’” Still said. “That piece is very important.”

But today, Still said, staff cuts among teachers and administrators make that time harder to find.

“When you have more teachers, the principal has more flexibility,” she said. “Time to collaborate with your colleagues is probably the most valuable resource.”

Formula offers modest help

Districts can expect only a little help from Pennsylvania’s new funding formula. It’s a positive development, McInerney said, but the formula only governs about 6 percent of the overall education budget.

“We are not driving a significant amount of dollars through it,” McInerney said.

In Lancaster, for example, district officials expect the formula to boost their budget by about 5 percent, according to a spokesperson.

In the William Penn District, Bruno said, the impact isn’t yet clear.

“Until we see the check with a signature on the bottom, I don’t know,” he said.

In Philadelphia, “We’re waiting to see what will happen,” said Still. “I’m hopeful.”

That leaves districts and teachers to continue juggling their responsibilities, filling in gaps where they can. In William Penn, Christ will keep raising money for copies of books like Twilight or Tuesdays with Morrie. But she can’t hire new staff or create new programs, even though the need can be obvious.

“I would love an intake test for math. That’s where the students struggle just as much,” Christ said.

“Plenty of them are coming from refugee camps or schools where they just played soccer all day. It would be great if we had a teacher who’d work with just those … students. I don’t need money. I just need a math teacher.”

Bill Hangley Jr. is a freelance contributor to the Notebook; on Twitter @BillHangley.

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