Three Ways to Improve Education Finance Equity in the Southeast for English Learners

English learners (ELs) are an incredibly diverse group of students, representing about 400 languages spoken, and a wide range of ages and fluency in English. As EL enrollment in U.S. K-12 public schools grows, education systems must keep up with these students’ unique learning needs. EL language proficiency, length of time spent in U.S. public schools, age, and grade level are all factors that affect learning needs and the amount of funding required to meet those needs. But, a commitment to equitable funding for EL students is too often missing or minimal in state education funding formulas.  

This commitment is especially needed in the Southeast where ELs make up approximately 15% of the U.S. EL population, growing from 657,612 students in 2015 to 713,245 students in 2019. The number of ELs enrolled in the public school system in the South is rapidly increasing. Between 2000 and 2018, South Carolina experienced a more than a nine-fold increase in EL student enrollment — a rate of growth that is 24 times higher than the national average. Despite this increase in enrollment, the resources available to EL students in the Southeast have not kept up with students’ needs. 

In Improving Education Finance Equity for English Learners in the Southeast, Bonnie O’Keefe and I examine state funding systems for EL students across nine Southeastern states ​​— Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee — and offer a set of three key policy recommendations for how states can better support EL students.

  1. State funding formulas should move toward weighted, student-based systems with multiple EL weights. EL students with greater needs must receive more funding support through state funding formulas. For states that already have a weighted, student-based funding formula, policymakers should consider how to differentiate among a diverse array of EL needs. 
  2. The federal government should increase Title III funding of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). While increasing EL allocations at the state level holds the most promise for meeting the needs of EL students, federal funding has plateaued in recent years. Federal commitments must also keep up with the growing enrollment of EL students in the Southeast region and across the country. 
  3. State education agencies and the federal government should improve transparency of EL data. Although ESSA mandated annual reports of school-level spending, policymakers should increase the level of publicly available state and district data about funding for EL students. 

The region has an opportunity to be a national leader in providing more funding for EL students that is aligned to their unique learning needs. Tennessee and South Carolina are already considering funding reform proposals this spring, and there is room for other states in the region to follow suit and consider proposals to increase the resources available to EL students. Our analysis finds that just two states in the Southeast region — Florida and South Carolina — incorporate EL student weights in their funding formula. 

States have a federal obligation to ensure that EL students receive a high-quality education that allows them to meet their full potential. Although there are bright spots in many of the nine states we examined, more work must be done by policymakers to elevate the needs of EL students in the Southeast. 

Improving Education Finance Equity for English Learners in the Southeast is part of an ongoing Bellwether examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families.