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Education committee holds over plans for English Learner funding increases

According to the State Demographic Center, 243,700 Minnesotans — about 5% of the state’s population — speak English less than “very well,” a 3% increase since 2017.

The bulk of those people are in the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area, but the highest area as a percentage of its residents is 18% in Nobles County in the southwest part of the state. Also along the Iowa border, Mower County in south-central Minnesota has seen its number increase to 11%.

It is estimated that 3% of children ages 5-17 speak English less than “very well;” most of those kids are ages 5-10.

No matter their native tongue, young Minnesotans still need an education.

According to a nonpartisan House Research Department overview, the state has provided English Learner program educational funding since 1980. “An EL student is annually assessed and entrance to, and exit from, EL programs are governed by the assessment results. A school district may receive up to seven years of funding for each EL student. A student that meets the exit criteria is no longer eligible for EL programming. A student who does not exit EL programming after seven years continues to receive EL services until the student exits the program.”

About $62 million is expected to be allocated through the English learner formula for fiscal year 2023. Education officials say more is needed.

The state’s English Learner population has increased almost 200% in the last 20 years with continued growth expected, said Rep. Kaohly Vang Her (DFL-St. Paul). “The state funding formula has not been updated to reflect this change during the same period. The $2 million bump last year was a first step, but [the Department of Education] has reported that it is short nearly $147 million for critical EL services and professional training for students to achieve state and federal standards.”

Her sponsors HF2944 to increase the basic allowance from $704 times the district’s count of eligible students to $1,000 per student. It would also gradually increase the formula that pays for a percentage of the difference between the school’s English Learner program spending and its revenue to 100% by fiscal year 2026. The bill was laid over Tuesday by the House Education Finance Committee.

Superintendent Joe Gothard said 30% — more than 10,000 — of St. Paul Public Schools’ students qualify for English language services. He said 101 languages are spoken across the system.

“Our job is to provide instruction to ensure all EL learners reach their highest potential and are able access rigorous curriculum while getting the necessary supports to develop their skills at the same time,” he said. “… Students need additional intensive support and instruction beyond the general education curriculum in order to meet this goal.”

Support also came from representatives of the Faribault and Worthington school districts.

Also held over by the committee was HF1939. Sponsored by Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), it would, in part, annually increase English Learner program statewide revenue by the same percentage rate as the general education basic revenue allowance. It also specifies how increased dollars would be spent as a percent of the total.

“It’s time for us to make a stronger investment in these students,” Mariani said.

The companion bills, SF2932 and SF1964, sponsored by Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne) and Sen. Mary Kunesh (DFL-New Brighton), respectively, await action by the Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee.

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