State spends funds over 13 years
Stephen Wall, Staff Writer
Posted: 02/06/2010 07:09:43 AM PST

California taxpayers have shelled out about $630million over the past 13 years to provide English classes to immigrant adults.

The money was required as part of Proposition 227, an anti-bilingual education initiative passed by voters in 1998.

The measure, approved by 61percent of the voters, said public school kids should learn English as quickly and effectively as possible. It was intended to move students with limited English skills into mainstream classes within one year.

To help accomplish that goal, the state spent $50 million annually over 10 years to provide free English classes to immigrant parents and others who pledged to tutor kids with limited English proficiency.

The state Legislature reauthorized the program in 2006. About $130million was allocated in the following three fiscal years. The program is slated to receive about $40million in the 2010-2011 budget.

Some question whether the program has worked. Even supporters of bilingual education say the money might be better spent elsewhere.

“Perhaps an equally beneficial way to spend that money is to teach teachers Spanish so a 21stcentury teacher has the skills to reach all audiences,” said Louie Rodriguez, assistant professor of educational leadership and curriculum at Cal State San Bernardino.

“In this case, perhaps speaking Spanish would make them a stronger teacher,” Rodriguez said.

English learners have shown gains on standardized tests in recent years, but educators say there is plenty of room for improvement.

“I feel that some of the money should be used to provide daily after-school English-as-a-Second Language classes for students to learn English more rapidly,” said Gil Navarro, a member of the San Bernardino County board of education.

Republican lawmakers are also concerned that some of the money is helping parents who are in the country illegally.

“It’s hard for parents to help their kids with homework if they can’t speak English. But at the same time, you can’t condone someone who is violating our immigration law,” said state Sen. Robert Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga. “It’s bad public policy to provide public benefits to people who have broken the law and are here illegally.”

Dutton, the Republican leader-elect in the state Senate, added that the program needs to be thoroughly evaluated to determine its effectiveness.

“If we’re just throwing money at it, and it’s not solving a problem, we need to yank it back in,” Dutton said.

Assemblyman Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, said kids are being shortchanged because their parents don’t try hard enough to learn English.

“It’s not well-spent money to teach our students’ parents how to learn English,” said Knight, whose district includes Victorville. “A lot of parents do not speak English at home. A lot of kids go home and are put back in an environment where English is not spoken.”

Knight said taxpayers would be better served if the money were used to hire tutors to help kids in math, science and English.

San Bernardino County school districts received about $3million a year for the program in the decade after the anti-bilingual education law passed. Local districts now share a total of about $2.5million a year, which is dispersed based on the number of English learners per district.

As a result of the budget crisis, the state now gives districts flexibility to use the money for other purposes.

The San Bernardino City Unified School District gets the largest amount of any district in the county. The district, the seventh largest in the state, received about $600,000 annually for the 10-year period after the law passed. In subsequent years, the district has received about $500,000 annually.

Daniel Arellano, the district’s director of English learner programs, said the classes are much sought after by parents. More than than 1,000 signed up last year, he said.

But the program has suffered from sporadic attendance, making it hard for the district to tell how well it is working, Arellano said.

The district contracts with five community nonprofit groups to provide classes at schools and other sites.

Arellano said about 20percent of the students complete the minimum 70 hours of instruction needed to receive a test to determine how much they learned.

“I’ve let the agencies know that it’s great they are signing up quite a few parents,” Arellano said. “But they need to see to it that the parents are attending regularly.”

The El Sol Neighborhood Educational Center in San Bernardino got about $90,000 this year to offer the classes.

Alex Fajardo, director of the organization, said it’s sometimes hard for the parents to show up because they have work or family responsibilities.

On a weekday morning last week, immigrant parents sat in the cafeteria of Mount Vernon Elementary School learning verbs and pronouns while their children studied in nearby classrooms.

Maria Adame, a 33-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico who has three children also here illegally, said English is vital for other reasons besides helping her kids with their homework.

“I want to learn English to get a job,” said the Spanish-speaking Adame, who also has a child born in the United States. “When we go to a hospital or to the store, I don’t understand anything when they speak English.”

Genoveva Rocha, a naturalized citizen who has lived in this country 13 years, said she has taken English classes at several schools but continues to struggle with the language.

Rocha, who has two U.S.-born daughters in San Bernardino public schools, said she understands English better than she speaks it.

“The pronunciation is very difficult,” she said in Spanish. “A lot of people leave because it is so difficult. I tell them they have to stay because it is important.”

The Rialto Unified School District got nearly $240,000 for the program this year. The district offers 19 classes taught at six schools.

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