California Educators Manipulate Migrants

, Rachel Chaney, Leave a comment

SACRAMENTO, CA – On December 1, a federal audit of California’s classification system for migrant students revealed that 74 percent of those identified as migrants were actually stationary, and hence did not qualify for special federal funding. That finding clashes with California’s own self-examination, which claimed that only five percent of migrant schoolchildren were incorrectly identified. What accounts for such a wide discrepancy?

Though the federal audit included only 124 students and siblings, the discrepancy between their 74 percent and the state’s five percent suggests some misrepresentation by California education officials.

Indeed, a December 8 article in the Modesto Bee reported that school officials in Pajaro Valley had identified as migrants some students who had lived in the same district for 13 years.  The officials also classified as migrant one student who had mistakenly recorded a family vacation in Mexico as movement due to agricultural employment. 

California counts 330,000 migrant children, defined legally as children who have moved between school districts within the past 36 months due to a parent’s agricultural employment.  The state receives $130 million in annual federal funding for these children.  Claiming this money for the education of migrant children who don’t actually exist means there is less money available for actual student needs such as textbooks and instructional materials.

Though the scope of the problem remains unclear, it would not be the first time California education officials have manipulated numbers at the expense of students for the sake of money.  Take, for example, the problems with California’s English language learner (EL) programs, outlined in PRI’s forthcoming Education Report Card.

School districts receive special funding, much of it on a per-student basis, for EL students. Districts consequently have a financial incentive to maintain as many EL students as possible since they receive federal Title III funds for these students that they don’t receive for non-EL students.

Each year all students identified as EL take the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) to test their English language proficiency. Students are then classified in one of five categories: beginning, early intermediate, intermediate, early advanced, or advanced.  Those students who test at the early advanced or advanced levels may be reclassified as English fluent. The state recommends reclassification based on this achievement as well as a sufficient score on the English language arts portion of the California Standards Test.  Local districts, however, often fail to reclassify students who meet these standards.

On the CELDT, 47 percent of students taking the test in 2005-2006 scored at the early advanced or advanced level.  Less than 10 percent of these students were reclassified as English fluent.

In addition to financial incentives, school districts have another reason to hold back EL students who score well on the CELDT and CST.  Because EL students are a subgroup under the federal No Child Left Behind Act who must make annual progress toward grade-level proficiency goals, keeping EL students who are actually English fluent in the EL category improves California’s chances of meeting federal goals.

Everyone pays homage to the importance of properly educating EL students so that they can function proficiently in English. Despite this, local education officials hold many students in the EL system long after they have obtained fluency in English.  As the forthcoming Report Card points out, this reduces their likelihood of taking college level courses and ultimately of obtaining a college degree.

As with misdirected money for migrant schoolchildren, the funds directed toward EL students who are English fluent benefits school districts at the expense of the children. This kind of exploitation needs to be stopped. In the new session, legislators should conduct a thorough investigation. This will not be a difficult matter — if they just follow the money.

Rachel Chaney is a public policy fellow in Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.