The High Price of English 101

A recently released report by the State of California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, or LAO, reveals the high cost and dubious effectiveness of the state’s efforts to educate massive numbers of non-English speaking students. The report, presented to the California State Assembly’s Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance, exposes some stark facts about the effect of massive foreign immigration on the State’s education system.

Of California’s 6.4 million kindergarten through 12 public school students, one out of four does not speak English or speaks it too inadequately to be educated in it. Of this number, 85% are Spanish speaking and from economically disadvantaged households. Additionally, one out of nine of these students requires special education programs.

The cost of public education in California already commands over 42% of the state’s $140 plus billion annual budget. No other single government service absorbs more tax dollars than does public education. Educating children of foreign immigrants adds to this burgeoning cost by substantially increasing school enrollments. Using the LAO’s data, that increase is 25%. The state’s K-12 education budget for 2007-08 proposes spending $11,584 per student, so the cost of that 25% increase in enrollment is $18.5 billion.

Moreover, the cost of public education is further inflated by adding special programs designed to accommodate non-English speaking students. Such programs have added more than $1.3 billion to the state’s education budget. And, while state politicians have optimistically named these programs “English Learners,” or EL, programs, these programs have not yielded results equivalent to the optimism that name implies. If learning English is the goal of these pricey programs, that goal has been an elusive one. Each year, only 8% to 10% of the 1.6 million students enrolled in the EL programs become proficiently fluent in English. At best, then, a success rate of one out of 10 means each year California taxpayers are paying $8,300 per student who successfully learns English.

The LAO’s investigation of individual EL students’ proficiency tests found that the students’ progress in learning English was very slow. By the time they reached tenth grade, only 40% of EL students could pass the English language portion of the California High School Exit Exam.

The performance measure was even more dismal on California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting Exam (STAR). The results of the 2005 STAR exam for third-graders showed that only 15% of EL students were proficient in the English Language Arts portion of the test compared to 47% of non-EL students who were. The results for tenth-graders were even less encouraging; not even 5% of EL students tested proficient in English compared to 43% of non-EL students who did.

Based on the findings of the LAO report, spending well beyond $1 billion per year to teach the children of foreign immigrants enough English to educate them in English has, so far, been an exorbitant exercise in futility. Nevertheless, the authors of the report recommend spending another $50.5 million on one-time remedial programs aimed at correcting the deficiencies of the failing EL programs, and warn that more money will be needed as the population of non-English speaking immigrants increases.

It seems that the wasteful optimism of politicians and government bureaucrats is limited only by the amount of taxes that can be extracted from the public.

As a practical matter, educating massive numbers of foreign immigrants is inherently difficult, especially when the flow of such immigration is unrelenting. Educating Hispanic immigrants has been particularly problematic because they are often migratory, are less inclined to assimilate to American culture, and many of them do not place a high value on education. Spanish-speaking students, whose dedication to education is lukewarm and whose cultural affinity clings to that of their native land, are far less likely to successfully learn English despite the hundreds of millions of dollars California taxpayers expend in the effort.

The fact that over recent decades both the private and public sectors of California have established a de facto bilingual state only diminishes the incentive for Spanish speaking immigrants to learn English. Since they are being accommodated in Spanish throughout society, there is less urgency to learn English. Ironically, in California, there may be more English speakers learning Spanish than Spanish speakers learning English.

Those who argue that illegal immigrants contribute more to the economy than they take out of it fail to consider the equation beyond immediate, personal, micro-economic benefits. While prices of some goods and services are lower because economically desperate, illegal immigrants will work for far lower wages than did the workers that they replaced, at the macro-economic level taxpayers are subsidizing this artificially cheap labor. Not only education, but also law enforcement, criminal justice, health services, insurance costs and other social services are adversely impacted by massive foreign immigration.

The macro-economic costs of massive foreign immigration are often downplayed or ignored. And, in gigantic, complex government budgets these costs, in effect, can be concealed. The LAO report on the English Learners programs has exposed just one of the many costs of massive foreign immigration found throughout the economy.