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Virginia underfunds English language learners compared to other states

The exterior of George Whythe High School.
CRIXELL MATTHEWS
/
Last year, state Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Richmond) proposed a bill to fund more teaching positions for English language learners based on the proficiency level of the student; students with lower English proficiency would receive additional support. However, the legislation did not clear the House of Delegates. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

new report from the national policy group Education Trust shows that Virginia public school districts serving the highest number of English language learners  receive 48% less state revenue per student than those districts serving the fewest ELL students.

That puts Virginia at the bottom of the list in this category, compared to all other states. Overall, Virginia is ranked in the bottom third when looking at funding disparities affecting high-poverty districts and districts serving the greatest number of students of color.

“What was most surprising to me that is most worrisome is that the inequities that we see between districts with the most students of color and the most English learners are much more drastic and more severe than the inequities that we're seeing between districts with the most and a fewest student from low-income backgrounds,” said Ivy Morgan, author of the new report.

When local and state dollars that English language learners in Virginia receive are combined, they get less than 1% more on average than native English speakers.

Morgan said that likely means districts with a high number of English learners — like those in the D.C. metropolitan area — are able to raise more local revenue than many other districts in the state.

According to the report, close to 10% of Virginia students are English language learners, and some state lawmakers want to increase the amount of funding the state provides for them.

Right now, the commonwealth provides funding for English language learners  based on a specified student-to-teacher ratio. Right now, that ratio is 50 English language learners for every teacher. Before  legislation passed in 2020, the ratio was more than 58 English language learners per teacher.

Many other states  take a different approach, using a multiplier to set per-pupil funding.

Last year, State Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Richmond) proposed a bill to fund more teaching positions for English language learners based on the proficiency level of the student; students with lower English proficiency would receive additional support. However, the legislation did not clear the House of Delegates.

“A lot of the school divisions that I've talked to continue to point to this area as very, very critical for them,” Hashmi told VPM News earlier this year. “There’s a growing and critical need in Virginia, and I hope we might be able to revisit it next session.”

One study indicates that English learners need up to 2 to 2.5 times as much funding as other students, while  another suggests students from low-income families require 2 to 3 times as much funding.

“And if we think about that, what we’re seeing in Virginia — the amount of differentiation that is happening — is not enough,” Morgan said.

The need  varies widely from one school district to the next, according to district-specific data in the  School Finance Indicators Database. The data suggests Richmond Public Schools would need to spend close to $12,000 more per student, nearly double what it spends now, in order to achieve national average test scores.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.
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