March 20, 2024

Splitting the Bill: A Q&A on School Funding for English Learners with New America’s Leslie Villegas

By Indira Dammu

Share this article

Education finance is a critical lever for change in every school across the country — one that can level the playing field or exacerbate long-standing inequities. Bellwether’s work on state education finance amplifies a range of promising funding strategies that can promote equity for students and demystify education funding for advocates, state policymakers, and families. Indira Dammu recently sat down with Leslie Villegas, a senior policy analyst in the education policy program at New America to talk about how state education finance can be more equitable for English learner (EL) students. This discussion has been edited for clarity and content.

Indira Dammu: Tell our readers about your professional background.  

Leslie Villegas: I’m a senior policy analyst at New America, a policy and research organization based in Washington, D.C. For the past seven years, I’ve focused my work on education policy for ELs throughout the pre-K to grade 12 system. I started my career working for several elected officials in the California State Legislature, where I built a deep foundation in public policy and politics. I bring that perspective to my everyday work at New America.

ID: What drew you, and continues to draw you, to the education sector? To issues of equity for EL students?

LV: Professionally, it was never my intention to work in education policy — my career path hasn’t been linear. But what I found in my work in the California State Legislature was that big societal issues like health care access, and housing and economic insecurity, among so many others, boil down to one thing: education. You can usually trace each one back to some kind of intersection with education and how the quality of K-12 education people have access to determines the kind of citizens and voters they become. For a democracy to thrive, it needs well-educated citizens from all walks of life.

Personally, I was an EL growing up and enrolled in Head Start when my family immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the early 1990s. My upbringing is integrated into the work I do today, but I never would have known it would turn out like this looking back. California’s transition to English-only education through Proposition 227 was passed when I was a student in its K-12 system. It wasn’t until high school and college that I understood just how precarious my own education was. Had my family not moved from east Los Angeles to the suburbs, I would have had a very different educational experience and might not be who I am, where I am, today — all because of inequities between the two communities’ K-12 public schools. 

ID: Last year you authored a collaborative brief about funding for ELs. Why is it important to consider EL students’ needs as part of school funding systems?

LV: We published two briefs on EL funding and hosted a roundtable discussion with EL policy and school finance experts. One takeaway from that work was that funding systems currently aren’t nuanced enough to account for the different needs of ELs. Students identified as ELs aren’t a monolith. ELs have many layers, yet school funding systems treat them as if they’re a homogenous group. Meanwhile, EL students’ needs vary depending on their English proficiency level, grade level, recency of arriving in the U.S., concentration of ELs in one or two schools versus dispersed districtwide, and more. The EL student population is diverse in the U.S. but funding systems haven’t kept up with that diversity. You simply cannot appropriate or provide adequate funding to schools without taking these factors into consideration.

ID: What are examples of effective supports and learning practices for EL students that would require additional school resources?

LV: It’s important to think about what ELs need to meaningfully engage in their education that non-ELs don’t need, and how much those resources cost above basic educational services. One place to look is at language-related services and programs that ensure ELs’ civil rights are honored. From our research, those can include bilingual school counselors, social workers, school psychologists, bilingual family liaisons, smaller teacher-to-student ratios, tutoring, paraeducators, professional development and supplemental materials for mainstream and content teachers, translation and interpretation services, and welcome centers to support screening and enrollment especially in areas with large increases in newcomers.  

On learning practices, a school’s academic model matters. We know that bilingual education programs are beneficial for ELs, but we have difficulty tracking the differences in funding one program over another (e.g., bilingual versus English-only). What’s more, we have a limited understanding of the different costs associated with varying ways to deliver language services (e.g., in or out of the classroom or via co-teaching models). These supports require additional district or school resources, but how much is “additional” beyond per-pupil appropriations depends on context. Our research shows that more information is needed to see what EL services or combinations of services can move the needle and how much they cost in a given state’s K-12 system. 

ID: What are some considerations policymakers should keep in mind if they’re seeking to improve funding equity and learning outcomes for ELs?

LV: It depends on which level you’re looking at: federal, state, or local (e.g., superintendents or school boards who wield a lot of power over how EL programs are resourced at the district level). For state leaders, a key finding in our work is that they must continually assess how much funding is being given to ELs to ensure that it keeps pace with EL student populations and that it’s equitably distributed. It’s rare to see studies conducted solely on EL funding, but that would be the ideal thing to examine. 

At the local level, a 2023 EL funding brief we released in partnership with a school district in Alabama taught us that a district’s culture and positioning in relation to ELs and families can make or break efforts to provide an equitable education, including how it’s being funded. In this particular district, the superintendent conducted an EL funding adequacy analysis for his doctoral thesis. When he started to pursue changes to how ELs were supported in his district, he realized that first he needed to establish a baseline understanding and care for these students and their families districtwide. Once that was established, teachers didn’t question additional training and professional development focused on EL students, or the increase in local dollars being diverted to EL education. 

The lesson? Investing in a strong district culture is a critical part of improving funding equity and the state of learning for EL students.

ID: What advice would you give to state advocates who are interested in advancing funding reform for ELs?

LV: First, advocates must understand statewide EL student populations, demographics, and associated needs, and focus energies on if or how these differ across their state. From there, they can better align funding equity efforts to truly represent the student populations served. 

Second, advocates must prepare themselves with hard data and numbers for any conversation about funding with legislators. The work we did with the Alabama school district wasn’t a complicated cost-function analysis, we simply looked at money coming in (and from where), how it changed over time, and how funds were used to support ELs. Advocates can do the same type of work in their own states to monitor and track equity for ELs, and to influence needed changes in the decision-making process.

ID: A majority of states use a weighted student funding formula to allocate funding for EL services and programs. What should state policymakers and advocates consider when designing a weighted student funding formula that keeps EL needs in mind?

LV: What we have found in our work is that every part of a state’s education funding structure can impact whether funding levels that make it to individual schools are equitable and adequate. A lot of attention is spent on funding formulas, but our research shows that a state can have the “best” formula that weights ELs high and still be inequitable. 

ELs should be integrated into every component of state education funding structures and decision-making. We need to think beyond per-pupil and formula terms and instead think about funding needs to serve students at a systemwide level, both academically and linguistically.

ID: What’s one thing you wish people knew about EL students more broadly?

LV: EL students are incredibly diverse, with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, varied life and educational experiences, and complex aspirations for their own future. To ensure that these students have equitable access to educational opportunities, we need to incorporate their complexity into our education and funding systems.

For more on Bellwether’s state education finance work, click here. And check out Bellwether’s prior work on issues of EL finance equity in “Splitting the Bill: How Do School Finance Systems Support English Learners?” and in an analysis on improving education finance equity for ELs in the Southeast.

More from this topic

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.