Bilingual ed help pushed
Express-News Austin Bureau
Jan 28, 2006

Gary Scharrer
  AUSTIN Any public school finance reform that Texas lawmakers consider must include better accountability for bilingual education programs, House Speaker Tom Craddick says, because the number of non-English-speaking children keeps climbing.

  About 700,000 students are now considered Limited English Proficient, nearly 16 percent of the 4.4 million enrolled in the state's public schools. By 2010, the number of LEP students could approach 1 million and make up 31 percent of total enrollment, according to the Texas Coalition for Bilingual Education.

  "You need a measure to gauge whether the bilingual education programs are successful or not," Craddick, R-Midland, said. "All we're saying is let's hold the school districts accountable for it. That's just not being done."

  "When we made (schools) accountable for English and math, it made a huge difference in the scores on those," he said. "I was just shocked that there's no accountability in the others, and I just think there needs to be."

  Bilingual educators say they welcome greater accountability but warn it will take money to improve chronically underfunded programs.

  "The funding in the past is minimal. It's just basically keeping these minimal-level programs afloat," said Leo Gomez, president of the Texas Association of Bilingual Educators.

  But Gomez said bilingual educators couldn't simply beg for more money.

  "We need to justify how it's being used and how it will bring results. We just can't say, 'We need more money it's underfunded.' We've said that for years. We need to give them some answers because these people hear it from everybody across the state. They all need more money."

  Because of state budget cuts three years ago, the Texas Education Agency trimmed staff and now only monitors school districts for bilingual education compliance every five years instead of every two, Gomez said. More monitoring and accountability are needed, he said.

  Gov. Rick Perry plans to call state lawmakers to a special session this spring to answer a Texas Supreme Court ruling that the public school funding system is unconstitutional.

  Senate leaders want to focus on the state's tax system and fix the way Texas funds public schools. Craddick and House leaders want education reforms to be part of the debate without waiting for the next regular session to start in January 2007.

  Since the early 1980s, Texas has given school districts an extra 10 percent in per-student funding for each bilingual education student. But that adjustment should be 25 percent to 40 percent, according to studies cited by bilingual education groups studies that went undisputed in a 2004 court case involving Texas school funding.

  Texas' success or failure in educating low-income children and students who struggle with English will influence the state's future. Unless present education trends change, state demographer Steve Murdock warned, the average household income will decline by more than $6,500 in 30 years.

  About 55 percent of the state's public school students already come from low-income families.

  The performance gap for Limited English Proficient students is wide, especially at the upper grade levels where their state test results lag the state average by 34 to 50 points.

  "A good percentage of those children will drop out because they have been in a frustrating system for 10 years," Gomez said. "They don't do well. They struggle. They begin to recognize that 'school is not for me.'"

  The attrition rate for ninth-graders in 2001-02 was 36 percent, which means more than 137,000 students dropped out or could not be accounted for when their class graduated from high school last spring, according to the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association.

  Dropouts become a burden on society, Gomez said, because many end up in prison or turn into "just another poor citizen who will not contribute to the system."

  Considering the expanding numbers of non-English-speaking children, Craddick agrees that the stakes are high in the effort to educate those students.

  If the state fails, "In the long run, all we're doing is building more problems for the state and damaging our available work force and all that," Craddick said. "It's just all pure negative."

  In Texas, about 90 percent of LEP students are Spanish speakers, with the others coming from homes where any of more than 60 languages are spoken, Gomez said.

  A school reform debate will likely provoke disagreements among lawmakers similar to those that resulted in three failed special sessions on school finance in 2004-2005.

  State Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, said "accountability" sounds nice but fears that bilingual education critics will simply try to "intimidate school districts by putting additional burdens on them."

  "I think school districts can be great incubators of progress. I'm not a believer that every good idea has to come from Austin. I think you let the school districts tell you what works as opposed to the other
way around," said Gallego, chairman of the House Mexican-American Caucus.

  Educators and politicians should look for the "best practices" of successful bilingual education programs for other school districts to replicate, he said.

  Some bilingual education critics contend that non-English-speaking students should be immersed in English to learn the language.

  "That is the worst type of thing we can do for children," Gomez said. "You have to give children the opportunity to learn and become educated in their primary language so that they become literate while they develop English as their language.

  "Once they become literate and they are fully on grade level and they have learned the English anguage, they transfer those skills. That has been documented forever."

  The House speaker would not speculate about his support for full funding of a successful bilingual education program.

  "I have to know what program you are talking about,"Craddick said.

  The head of the House Mexican American Caucus is skeptical that GOP leaders would increase bilingual education funding to a level necessary for success.

  "There's no program out there that they would be willing to fully fund when they haven't fully funded anything in the past," Gallego said.