AUSTIN — Texas has seen a significant increase in the number of its public-school students considered English-language learners but is cutting funding to bilingual programs vital to ensuring they succeed, an expert told the state's sweeping school finance trial Tuesday.
Delia Pompa, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza and former executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, testified that from 1998 to 2008, the number of English-language learners in Texas jumped 38.4 percent. That's compared to overall enrollment growth of 17.4 percent over the same period.
"It's a dramatic indicator how quickly and how large this group has grown," Pompa told the court. "If we are going to be successful with our school children in Texas, we must be successful with our English-language learners."
According to the Texas Education Agency, students with limited English proficiency skills were more than 838,400, compared to around 496,000 bilingual students and almost 314,000 English as a Second Language students during the 2011-12 school year.
Pompa said funding for bilingual and English as a Second Language programs fell from $1.2 billion in 2009-10 to $949 million in 2011-12. Under cross-examination from assistant Texas attorney general Amanda Cochran-McCall, however, she conceded she did not know if those figures represent budgeted amounts or actual money spent on such programs.
Pompa also testified that English-language learners had an 18 percent passing rate on the 2012 statewide standardized test known as STAAR. Non-English-language learning students had 72 percent passing rates. English-language learners' dropout rate over a five-year span for the class of 2011 hit 30.9 percent, meanwhile, compared to 8.6 percent for all students.
More than 600 school districts have sued the state, claiming the way it funds schools is so inefficient and unfair that it violates the Texas Constitution.
Six lawsuits have been rolled into a single case being heard by state District Judge John Dietz. They grew out of the state's Legislature 2011 decision to cut $5.4 billion in funding to schools and educational grant programs.
School districts claim the cuts have been especially costly since they came amid a Texas population boom that has seen public school enrollment rise by an average of 80,000 students per year, and as the state implements new and more-difficult school accountability measures that depend on students' STAAR scores.
The state counters that the system is adequately funded and that school districts don't always spend money wisely.
Texas was one of the first states to pass a bilingual education law, Pompa said, "but what we have not done is keep up with what is necessary to close the gaps between English-language learners and other students' increases."
She said English-language learners need "an extra helping of good instruction, an extra helping of well-paid teachers and an extra helping of materials and focusing on what we have learned over 30 years about how English-language learners learn."
Pompa said growth among English-language learners began in urban school districts but has since spread to suburban and even rural areas. She also testified that 20.3 percent of early childhood education teachers were cut in 2010, and that many districts have to recruit bilingual teachers from outside the United States, even such places as Spain.
"It is so important to focus on the growing number of English-language learners in this state," she said, "and to recognize as they become a more significant proportion of the population, their performance is going foretell the performance of the whole state."