Predicted ESOL Savings Debated
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Prince William County's top elected official asserted last month that an exodus of immigrant families after the county's crackdown on illegal immigration is saving the school system millions of dollars because it has to educate fewer students who are learning English as a second language.
But Prince William school officials say that the departure of nearly 760 students this school year from the English for Speakers of Other Languages program has not brought a financial windfall to the school system, contrary to an estimate of $6 million in savings cited by Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large).
Many Prince William ESOL students have moved to Fairfax County schools or elsewhere in Northern Virginia, raising questions about the financial impact of the school-to-school migration as the immigration enforcement initiative has drawn scrutiny.
ESOL students typically cost more to educate than most students, partly because they are taught in smaller classes. Prince William school officials estimate that their county spends about $3,165 more for each ESOL student than for most students. In Fairfax, the additional annual cost per student is about $3,538. That extra expense is covered by funds from local, state and federal governments.
State education aid is distributed to school systems according to poverty and enrollment data and provides nearly half of Prince William's annual school funding. When students leave a school system, so does state funding. David S. Cline, director of financial services for Prince William schools, estimated that the reduction in state funding this school year because of the ESOL student exodus totaled $2 million. But the school system was unable to reduce spending accordingly because students left from many schools. Officials could not reduce teaching staff, for example, or send back textbooks.
Prince William schools, with total enrollment of about 73,000 students, expect to recover the lost funding in the next school year, Cline said, with a net savings of about $2 million. If ESOL students continue to leave in the longer term, officials said, the school system will be able to plan for fewer students and save on operational costs such as teachers and buses, as well as construction costs, with fewer schools to build.
Stewart said the school system's short-term analysis is misleading.
"They can twist the numbers however they want," he said, "but it's an absurd conclusion that a reduction in the number of students does not save any money." Stewart said he based his $6 million cost savings estimate on a projected slowdown in enrollment growth, but he acknowledged that the county might not net that much in the next school year from the ESOL program reduction. Still, he said, taxpayers would benefit because the cost of educating students is shared by the state and the county.
Stewart has led the Prince William movement to deny some public services to illegal immigrants and to require police to check the immigration status of crime suspects thought to be in the country illegally. Whether for that or for other reasons, hundreds of immigrant families with ESOL students have left the county, with ESOL enrollment dropping -- from 13,404 on Sept. 30 to 12,645 on March 31.
Records show most of those students have moved to other Virginia school systems and are therefore still funded partly by the state. Fairfax received 623 ESOL transfers from Prince William in that time, up from 241 the year before. In the same period, dozens of ESOL students also shifted from Prince William to Arlington County and Alexandria schools.
Fairfax, which provides ESOL services to more than 22,000 students, was able to absorb the extra students from Prince William this year, county ESOL services director Teddi Predaris said. The rate of growth of the county's ESOL program has been steady in recent years, she said.
But the increase in Fairfax's ESOL population coincides with a rise in enrollment that officials attribute mainly to a slow housing market that is limiting migration out of the county. School officials recently revised their projections upwards for next school year to 168,384 students, about 3,500 students more than they included in their budget last year. Accommodating those new students will cost about $22 million, they estimated.
At the same time, the Fairfax County government is providing less money for Fairfax schools this year than the School Board has requested. The tight budget has forced the School Board to consider raising average class sizes by half a student and giving teachers a 2 percent cost-of-living raise rather than the 3 percent raise they have sought. Against that backdrop, new ESOL costs add to the county's budget pressures. County schools get about 20 percent of their annual funding from the state, a lower proportion than in Prince William.
Fairfax School Board members said Thursday they welcomed new students who arrive from the neighboring county. School Board member Kaye Kory (Mason) said some schools in her district have added dozens of new students in the past few months, many from Prince William, which she attributes in part to that county's immigration policies. Kory said she expects there will be fewer teachers and instructional assistants next year to help those students because money is scarce.
But she said: "It's not like I can send Prince William a bill."