Apr 2, 2024 - World

Students learning English at risk as pandemic funding dries up

Illustration of a teacher drawing a speech bubble on a chalkboard.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

U.S. school districts are facing a pandemic funding cliff this year that threatens students learning English as a second language.

Why it matters: One in five K-12 students in the U.S. speaks a language other than English at home, and 10% of the student population is enrolled in language development services, according to TNTP, an education research and advocacy organization.

  • School closures during COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on English-language learners, per prior research.

Context: In response to the disruption the pandemic caused to public education, the federal government in 2020 began to dole out billions of dollars for schools through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSR) fund.

  • Some of those districts used the funding to provide key services to multilingual learners, or students whose first language isn't English.

The latest: The funding is set to expire in September but the government is extending it from 120 days to as long as 14 months.

  • Jazmin Flores Peña, a policy analyst at the national nonprofit advocacy group All4Ed, says the extensions will give districts some wiggle room, but the big question right now is what will happen when the funds ultimately run dry.
  • "At the end of the day, this becomes about choices" over how much to fund programs for multilingual learners, she says, adding that districts need to have a solid commitment to English learners and seek other funding sources.
  • Leticia de la Vara, chief of policy, engagements and external affairs for TNTP, tells Axios Latino the end of pandemic funding is "actually an opportunity to rethink how we will fund for this component of the education budget."

Zoom in: Surry County Schools in rural North Carolina used roughly $539,000 in ESSER funds since 2020 to pay for more staff and new technology for multilingual learners, says LuAnne Llewellyn, the district's director of federal programs.

  • About 12% of students in the district's 20 schools are learning English. Although the most common first language is Spanish, there's been a recent increase in Vietnamese speakers, Llewellyn says.
  • Using ESSER funds, Surry County Schools hired three new multilingual specialists, narrowing the ratio from one specialist per 95 students to one per 53.
  • Those specialists are now able to spend about five days each week with students at various schools.

What they're saying: Llewellyn says it's important to understand that students come to school with varying levels of education and a variety of backgrounds. Some students from Central America, for example, speak Indigenous languages rather than Spanish.

  • "There's richness and tapestry woven within all of them because of their culture, their background experiences. So when we work with our students and families, we have to take that into consideration."

What's next: In anticipation of the ESSR funds drying up, the district has already turned to other federal and state sources to hold on to the new staff.

What to watch: The funds helped level the playing field for multilingual learners, who advocates have long said receive fewer resources and funding than other students.

  • Some analysts argue the federal government should increase Title III funding allocated to schools with a large share of multilingual learners.
  • The Migration Policy Institute urged the federal government to collect and make public information on how states and local districts used ESSER funds to serve multilingual learners.

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