It would be an understatement to say that the earth shook a bit in Providence last week when the United States Department of Justice revealed that Providence Public Schools has got a major problem when it comes to how it is serving—and not serving—its English Language Learners. We now know that PPSD and the DOJ reached a settlement that will include massive changes to how Providence serves its ELL students as well as an urgent need for more dollars from state and local government.
But let’s step back for a second and make sure we aren’t under the illusion that the writing for this hasn’t been on the wall for a while. Chris Maher, the Providence Superintendent of Schools, has been essentially shouting about this issue from the rooftops for years, including when he was interviewed for the Providence Journal’s Race in RI series back in November of 2015. During that conversation he referred to the increase in the ELL population as a “tidal wave of need” and said that “we were looking in the other direction.”
At that time, Maher said that the number of ELL students had increased by 50 percent in 5 years and was still going up. And he was right. Providence is one of the rare cities that is not seeing a decline in its population but the demographics are changing rapidly and immigrant families have come to define the city, and consequently, the school system.
Providence is hardly alone in being investigated by the DOJ for not adequately serving its English Language Learner population—Boston is in year 8 of the process of responding to the DOJ’s findings on the same issue and Arizona and California reached similar settlements in 2016. Truthfully, a statewide investigation would have made more sense because of our size and because this issue is not unique to our capital city. A quick look at the ELL data in our urban and non-urban districts tells a similarly grim story. DOJ originally told PPSD that their investigation was not related to any specific complaints but now they have acknowledged that there were specific complaints, though they did not disclose who made them. It is also important to note that DOJ also confirmed that they did not disclose those complaints to school district officials.
OK, Here’s the Situation
2 out of 3 students in PPSD are Latino. 29 percent of these students are designated as ELLS and the Superintendent, and now the Department of Justice, are both on record saying that they believe that number is actually too low and that we are most likely under-identifying students who qualify for ELL support. If that is in fact the case, RIDE will need to take a hard look at its guidelines since PPSD, and most if not all other schools in the state, rely on those guidelines to identify English language learners.
In its current form, the Rhode Island funding formula does not allocate any dollars specifically targeted to English Language Learners—the only weighted categories are poverty and special education and while poverty and ELL are often closely related, they are not the same thing and should not be treated as such, especially not in a city like Providence where three quarters of students are Latino. It seems that lawmakers were comfortable in using poverty as a proxy for English Language Learners at the time of the formula’s passage but the “tidal wave” of need that was aptly predicted—and has reached our shores—requires urgent study and action on the now eight-year-old funding formula. And while people may be tempted to aim their slings and arrows at the Providence school department, they’d be wrong to do so. Robust ELL programs require funding, resources, and expertise and school systems do not generate revenue or have the power to pass levies. And they certainly aren’t magicians.
And as WPRI reporter Dan McGowan reported in January of 2017, 98 percent of district spending is tied up in fixed costs so it isn’t hyperbole to say that any attempt to pay for what’s required under the agreement with DOJ—with current funding streams—will literally be like trying to get blood from a stone. If predictable patterns continue on the funding front, the city of Providence and the state will disagree and even fight over who should pony up the bulk of the the needed increase. It is important to note that PPSD has only received a 1 percent increase in funding from the city since 2011. And before 2017, there had literally been no increase at all at the local level. State dollars have increased by over $50 million but there has been a decrease in federal dollars of more than $25 million.
In anticipation of this agreement with DOJ, the school budget for the upcoming year does include an additional $1 million for ELLs but the painful truth is that it’s a drop in the bucket when compared to the level of need.
Adding insult to injury is our anemic pipeline of teachers who holed ELL certification. Teacher prep enrollment is down 50 percent statewide since 2010 and that is an alarming statistic that could have enormous repercussions for the ELL conversation. As it became clear in recent years that the marketplace of teachers is diminishing, PPSD joined up with Roger Williams to create a program to get more teachers ESL certified for Providence and though it is helpful, it simply isn’t enough.
MA is now requiring every new teacher and administrator who works with ELL students to have an ESL endorsement. (Boston was similarly flagged by DOJ eight years ago for the same reason.) Rhode Island will likely have to do the same thing—or something similar— as the pipeline of teachers with ELL certification is already pretty anemic.
State Education Commissioner Ken Wagner is wasting no time proposing solutions to mitigate this crisis around human capital. As reported in the Providence Journal, Wagner has proposed a fast track way for teachers to get trained to work with English language learners instead of the burdensome route they are currently required to follow. His proposal would offer educators a shorter path for both ESL and dyslexia credentials and could help Providence and the rest of the state begin to meet the needs of students much more quickly. Wagner clearly understands that our current and overly onerous certification rules must adapt to the changing—and growing—needs of the students we serve.