Obtaining more money to help Utah students learn English will be one of the state Board of Education’s top priorities next legislative session.

Board members said last week they don’t know how much money they want — and aren’t optimistic they will get much — but said they need to do something to help Utah’s exploding population of non-English speakers.

Besides money, the state lacks teachers trained in English as a Second Language (ESL), and programs used to identify, assess and teach non-English speakers are inadequate, according to state experts on alternative language services.

“There’s probably not enough money for the kinds of things we need to do,” said Bonnie Morgan, associate state superintendent.

In total, the state spends $ 3.5 million to help Utah’s 41,305 English language learners. While their numbers have more than doubled in a decade, funding has remained static. Just 1,200 of the state’s 22,000 teachers are trained in ESL strategies.

Nancy Giraldo, the state’s alternative language specialist, would like all teachers to have that background, and to use hands-on learning, group work and visuals that help English learners understand their classes.

Giraldo also would have ESL specialists know how to assess students and help them develop English language skills. Such a program will take millions of dollars — money districts don’t have but must spend because of federal law.

Davis District alone will spend $ 600,000 to help 800 teachers take ESL classes. It gets only $ 195,000 from the state.

Davis Superintendent Darrell White told board members he must run a $ 500,000 deficit because his is one of the state’s eight districts under review by the federal Office for Civil Rights, which requires every non-English speaker be taught by a trained teacher.

Said Jean Hill, law specialist for the state Office of Education: “Money is not an excuse. A court’s not going to say, ‘You don’t have the money, that’s OK.’ They’re going to say, ‘Why aren’t you meeting the needs of these students?’ “

Giraldo also said bilingual programs are the best way to teach non-English speakers. Few Utah schools follow that model, which may prove politically difficult to implement. Utahns passed an Official English law last year. While it doesn’t affect the use of other languages in schools, other states that passed similar laws later required students learn in English only.

School board members instructed staff to determine what can be done to help students within the existing budget. One option: Require that all new teachers get ESL training in their college teacher preparation programs.

Other educational reforms might be necessary to satisfy the federal government, said Patricia Bradley, coordinator of at-risk services. Non-English speakers may need to be assessed in their native languages to gauge their academic level.

hmay@sltrib.com



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