California has a budgeting framework designed to engage communities in their aspirations and be adaptable to local needs. However, across the board, we are failing to connect meaningfully the families of more than 1.1 million English learners who make up 19.1% of our students in the state and are a source of linguistic wealth and vitality for California.
Re-envisioning our system and charting new paths to address the educational needs of our diverse population is precisely the ethos of our school funding law in California, the Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF, serving Californians since 2013. The notions of equitable funding based on needs, the power of local decision making, and the engagement of communities are at the core of the law, and they are meant to be a part of the development of every district’s Local Control Accountability Plan, or LCAP. If these basic tenets fall or fail, there is not much left for this vision of public schooling.
English Learners are one of the identified populations that bring additional funding for districts. Their voices and those of their families´ need to be heard and, simply put, we are so far from it. Besides my work as an educator in the US and overseas, from elementary to the high school and college level, I am also a proud parent of English Learners and have served in positions of parental leadership such a president English Learner Advisory Committees at the school and district level. Working alongside other parents, we have transformed barely attended committees into action-oriented meetings attended by parents in the dozens. What was our approach? Connecting words to action, transformation (very often tied to budget lines), and accountability.
Unfortunately, as committed as parents of English learners are, they are often not told about their right to be heard in the budgeting process and calls for their input are sunk in a sea of eduspeak. They are often not provided the mandated training that would allow them to know about the value of their signature on school plans to certify that their community was actually heard. On other occasions, the explanation of the complexities of the budgeting and input collection are reduced to a segment in a meeting that prevents any deeper engagement.
Too often parents of English learners give concrete advice on what is needed for their children and their education programs and not one suggestion makes it into the final draft of the district’s plan. Unsurprisingly, for example, many districts ignore the families’ right to get a written response from the superintendent to their input to the LCAP (Education Code 52062, (a) (1)). These families have a right to be engaged in a two-way conversation.
The extraordinary levels of funding that our state has devoted to education in the wake of the pandemic offer an opportunity to ensure that English Learner needs are better met. However, history and research show that funds often fail to reach these children.
As an example, by law every English Learner is to receive targeted English language development instruction. Yet, when the nonprofit organization Californians Together read and rated LCAPs from districts with the highest number and percentage of English Learners, they found that more than half described weak or no evidence of instruction to help students learn English.
There is a good chance that present surpluses in school budgets may soon give way to cuts forced by declining enrollment. This makes it even more urgent that parents of English Learners be engaged in the process. Since the political process of budgeting often dictates that “the squeaky wheel gets the oil,” training for teachers, intervention specialists, paraprofessionals, translation services… anything that is perceived as “soft” (or softer than) may face the chopping board if the parents of English Learners are not able to speak up in support of these programs.
Educators and leaders must create the space and the conditions for equitable, active engagement of the community. Some districts have found effective ways to communicate. The LCAP document is close to 200 pages? An infographic can be developed. Parents are not attending the meetings? Let´s do zoom meetings. But perhaps the more critical step, the teaching-how-to-fish approach, is to provide the meaningful training that EL families are supposed to receive. If such training identifies the tools that English Learners parents can use to make themselves heard, and that their voice translates into dollars and structures (or at least a required explanation as to why they did not happen), English Learners parents will find deeper meaning to attendance.
If the Local Control Funding Formula is to live up to its promise, we should put the words “local” and “control” under the microscope. Who is living in the locales? Who controls what? A re-envisioning of what the family-school partnership and what it means for English Learner families is long overdue, for times present and for what is to come, so that more and more families understand what happens in their schools. English Learner families have the right to engage and lead.
Eduardo R. Muñoz-Muñoz, PhD. is a proud parent of emergent bilinguals/English learners, the coordinator of the Critical Bilingual Authorization program Bilingüismo y Justicia at San José State University and a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project.
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