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Bill zeroes in on English-language-learning students

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(The Center Square) – Legislation supporting English language learners in schools, sponsored by Democrats and supported by Republicans, has made it through a subcommittee in the Virginia House of Representatives.

Foreign-born residents comprise 27.7% of northern Virginia’s population. English-language-learning students require additional resources in the classroom, creating a unique challenge in highly diverse areas.

English language learners were also at a heightened disadvantage during the pandemic, testified Chad Stewart, a policy analyst for the Virginia Education Association.

“They are the student group that lost the most ground over the pandemic across every one of our SOL tests compared to any other student group that we measure,” Stewart said, referring to Standards of Learning examinations.

The “national add-on for state support per pupil” for English language learners, or the funding they require above base funding, is 39%, while Virginia’s add-on is currently at 13%, according to Stewart.

If a report by the General-Assembly-established Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission is correct, it’s not just English language learners Virginia has underfunded. The summer analysis suggested the state’s school funding formula was “driven by staffing ratios” rather than “the unique needs of each student,” and as such, caused the commonwealth to underfund its schools for years.

House Bill 1247, patroned by Del. Michelle Maldonado, D-Prince William, would correlate funding for English language learning students to “levels” created by a consortium of state education departments in the WIDA consortium.

WIDA is an acronym for World-class Instructional Design and Assessment. Level 1 is the lowest proficiency level. Students in this category struggle with proficiency in their original language, as well as English.

The legislation aims to decrease the teacher-student ratio for English language learning students, allocating funding for 1:20 ratios for Level 1 and 2 students, 1:40 ratios for Level 3 and 4 students, and a 1:100 ratio for Level 5 and 6 students.

This would raise Virginia’s English language learning student add-on to 19%, according to Stewart.

“We believe that funding and allocating it in this way really goes to the heart of where the most need is, and allocates the money and the resources and support most appropriately,” Maldonando told the committee.

Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, who ultimately voted for the bill, did raise a point of constructive criticism.

“I think what we learned … in looking at the overall school funding formula is trying to move away from counting heads and applying ratio versus assigning true dollars of what a student needs money-wise to not only deal with the staffing that they need for support but also instructional materials, the wrap-around services,” Coyner said.

“I think this is definitely getting at it from one side, but it leaves out all the other pieces that that staff person needs to best assist a student as an English language learner.”

The committee voted 7-1 to report and refer the bill.

Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, voted against it.

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