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Proposed Fiscal Analysis of the "English for the Children" initiative

      December 1997


      Calculating the precise fiscal impact of the initiative is difficult, perhaps impossible. Apparently, neither the State Department of Education nor the relevant departments for individual school districts have ever made an effort to compile data on the aggregate cost of current programs aimed at Limited English Proficient (LEP) Children. If the cost of the current system is unknown, determining the fiscal impact of the proposed change is obviously made more difficult. Nonetheless, it seems possible to produce reasonable estimates of the cost of the current system, and that following the proposed change.


      1) Number of LEP students in California public school.

      Approximately 1.4 million, according to latest statistics from the State Department of Education.


      2) Annual additional cost per LEP student.

      This figure can only be arrived at through estimation, based on studies which have attempted to determine this figure for various other states and localities. Most of these studies are reviewed in Bilingual Education in Massachusetts[1], pp. 141-146. Cardenas, Bernal, and Kean (1976) estimated the additional cost of a "bilingual" program to be 30-35% in Texas, 17-25% in Utah, and 15-22% in Colorado. Garcia (1977) estimated the cost of "bilingual" programs to be 27% in New Mexico. Given average current per student spending in California schools of $5000-6000, these percentage figures would translate into current costs of $1000-2000. Carpenter-Huffman and Samulon (1981, 1983) estimated the additional cost of "bilingual" programs to be $200-700 in six school districts surveyed, corresponding to $500-1,500 in constant 1997 dollars (which understates the result since educational costs have risen faster than the CPI). Prince and Hubert (1990) estimated the additional costs of "bilingual" programs in Hartford, CT at $680. These studies also indicated that certain other forms of LEP instruction, such as ESL pullout, are actually more expensive than "bilingual education." A detailed review by Rossell of additional per student costs of "bilingual" programs across Massachusetts in the early 1990s produced an average figure of $1,179 per student. Rosalie Pedalino Porter, who directed LEP instruction in Newton, MA, reports the additional cost of $1000 per LEP student for her school district in the 1980s[2], and indicates that administrators from most other school districts with whom she has discussed the figures report a roughly similar expense. Furthermore, the Los Angeles USD pays "bilingual" certified teachers a salary bonus of $3000-5000 per year. Since approximately a third of California LEP students are in "bilingual" programs, and many of the remainder are in the even more costly ESL-pullout, it seems plausible that the marginal additional expense per California LEP child is in the approximate range of $1000-1500 per year. This is reasonably consistent with total state-level spending of $319 million per year on LEP students.


      3) Current length of LEP designation.

      According to the current dogma of "bilingual education," an LEP child requires 5 to 7 years to become proficient in English, i.e. leave LEP status, although the latest study by "bilingual" theorists at UC Riverside claims the process takes 10 years. In actual fact, the rate at which LEP students successfully transition from LEP status has been substantially slower than this, generally 5 or 6% over the past few years, implying an average stay of over 15 years(!) in LEP status. These extremely long periods of LEP designation probably result from a combination of the following factors: (a) LEP students in "bilingual" programs are often exposed to little or no English (less than an hour each day) for the first several years of school; (b) the Little Hoover Commission report [3], p. 40 suggested that large numbers of LEP students who do learn English may not be reclassified as fluent by school systems due to fiscal disincentives; (c) LEP classification is irrationally defined, being usually based on merely below-average performance in English. Regardless of which of these factors is most responsible, the transition statistics imply that at present LEP students in California remain LEP for over a decade.


      4) Length of stay required under "sheltered immersion" programs.

      An exhaustive recent study[4] of language-acquisition techniques used for native-language children in a dozen developed nations found virtually no use of the "bilingual" approach legally mandated in California public schools. Instead, most of these nations used either "newcomer" or "reception" classes utilizing the "language immersion" approach, followed by mainstreaming---much like the approach contemplated by the initiative---or (more often for younger children) a simple "sink-or-swim" submersion approach; such "newcomer" classes generally last for no more than one year. There seems no evidence that these approaches are any less successful than the "bilingual" approach standard in California schools, nor any reason to believe that the approach would not be equally applicable here. A review of 300 studies by Prof. Christine Rossell [5] found that among scientifically valid comparisons of different language techniques, "immersion" was superior to "bilingual education" or "ESL pullout" in nearly all cases, and even "sink-or-swim" submersion generally achieved superior results to "bilingual" techniques. As a specific example, the one-year "sheltered English immersion" technique used by initiative proponent Gloria Matta Tuchman has been highly successful in teaching English to LEP students, and has been replicated throughout her school district. Although the LEP classification methodology is not explicitly specified by the initiative, the LEP definitive used is a student "who is not currently able to perform ordinary classroom work in English," which is strikingly different than the current definition of a student who is below e.g. the 40th percentile in English ability. Furthermore, according to the initiative, LEP students placed in "sheltered English immersion" programs should be transferred to mainstream classes once they "have acquired a good working knowledge of English" (i.e. are no longer LEP), and such a temporary transition period is "not normally intended to exceed one year." Therefore, individual schools and school districts will be forced to use LEP classification methods which imply a LEP transition period of approximately 1 year (rather than the current 15 years).


      5) Prevalence of English-immersion under initiative

      Polls have consistently shown that the vast majority of LEP parents dislike the native-language instruction techniques used under "bilingual education," with 80-85% of Latino parents in particular preferring that their children be taught English as soon as they begin school. Under the initiative, such English-language immersion programs will become the normal default, with "bilingual education" being an option available only under specific circumstances. For these reasons, both initiative proponents and opponents agree that the overwhelming majority of LEP students would be placed in immersion programs, with perhaps only 2-5% remaining in "bilingual" or other programs.


      6) Estimated fiscal impact to K-12 educational system

      Based on the analysis of Section #5, we can assume that nearly all LEP students will be placed in immersion programs, and therefore taught English and reclassified as non-LEP after approximately one year (Section #4). This contrasts with the current system, in which LEP require over a decade to be reclassified as non-LEP (Section #3). Therefore, after the initial one or two years of transition, the number of students in California public schools classified as LEP on an ongoing basis should decrease by approximately 90% or more. If we take the estimated additional current expense per LEP child from Section #2 and multiply it by the current number of LEP children, we find current additional spending on LEP children in the range $1.4-2.1 billion annually. Since the initiative keeps fixed additional spending per LEP student, a reduction of 90% in the number of ongoing LEP students would imply educational savings of $1.2-1.9 billion to state and local governments. Although this calculation is based on sub-estimates, each of which are subject to some error, it is difficult to see how probable aggregate savings to California's local school districts can be estimated as being less than hundreds of millions of dollars annually.


      7) Net fiscal impact

      By drastically reducing the number of LEP-classified students and fixing the per student rate of state supplemental LEP funding, the total amount of such state spending---$331 million during the 1995-6 fiscal year---would decrease dramatically. Partially counter-balancing this, the initiative would appropriate an additional $50 million per year for ten years to be provided to local school districts to fund adult English literacy programs. Since both of these expenses fall into the Prop. 98 educational funding category, it is likely that there would be no significant net fiscal impact to the state, but that substantial amounts of educational savings could be redirected to other state-level educational programs. The large fiscal savings to local school districts from reduction in the number of LEP-classified students would either be redirected to other educational needs or used for other purposes. As discussed in Section #6, there would probably be aggregate savings of hundreds of millions of dollars annually to California's local school districts on programs for limited-English proficient students.



      1. Bilingual Education in Massachusetts, Christine H. Rossell and Keith Baker, Pioneer Institute, 1996.

      2. Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education, Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Transaction Press, 1996.

      3. A Chance to Succeed, Little Hoover Commission, 1993.

      4. Educating Immigrant Children, Charles L. Glenn with Ester J. de Jong, Garland Reference Library, 1996.

      5. The Failure of Bilingual Education, Center for Equal Opportunity, 1995.