Our review of the administration and monitoring of English learner programs by the Department of Education (department) and a sample of school districts found that:
The Department of Education (department) distributes the funds for three programs that address the needs of public school students who are not yet fluent in English, known as English learners. However, the approach the department and the school districts use to manage and monitor these supplemental programs is inadequate, allowing for funding variances, a lack of comparability in performance results between school districts, and the use of funds for unallowable and questionable purposes.
The department distributes funds for its three main English learner programs—federal Title III-Limited English Proficient and Immigrant Students (Title III), state Economic Impact Aid (Impact Aid), and the state English Language Acquisition Program (ELAP)—according to established criteria, and it measures the progress of English learners according to established standards. However, it provides school districts leeway in establishing certain criteria they use to identify students as English learners and to redesignate them as fluent in English. As a result, some school districts have developed more stringent criteria than those included in the department's guidelines. In noting this fact, we are not concluding that a particular criterion or scoring standard is preferable to another, but rather that inter-district variation exists.
For example, one school district we reviewed requires students to score at the early advanced level in all three language skill areas of the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) in order to be considered fluent, while the department's guidelines recommend only intermediate scores. In fiscal year 2003-04, this school district categorized 8 percent of the students it tested for initial categorization as fluent. It would have categorized an additional 19 percent as fluent if it had used the department's more lenient criteria.
Moreover, some students remain in the English learner population after they have met the criteria to be recognized as fluent because school districts fail to monitor the student redesignation process. In addition, the department's coordinated compliance review did not, until May 2005, include guidance for its consultants to review current English learners' records to ensure that they are designated correctly. In fact, some schools we reviewed failed to initiate, complete, or adhere to their districts' redesignation process. Of the 180 students we reviewed at eight school districts who were candidates for redesignation in fiscal year 2003-04 but had not been redesignated, 111 met their school districts' criteria for redesignation but remained in the English learner population. In addition, 21 others had been redesignated as fluent by their schools but were still listed as English learners in their district's database.
Because the number of English learners enrolled is a primary factor in funding formulas for English learner programs, some school districts likely receive higher funding under both state and federal English learner programs than they would if their criteria were aligned more closely with those of other school districts or if they did a better job of completing their redesignation processes. Further, school districts with tougher redesignation criteria retain a larger proportion of English learners who perform well on the CELDT. This appears to make it easier for those school districts to meet one of the three statewide performance objectives established by the department under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, of which Title III is a part.
The total funding for the three largest English learner programs was roughly $605 million in fiscal year 2003-04, and the department distributed most of these funds to school districts. The majority of these funds at the eight school districts we sampled were spent on salaries and benefits for teachers and staff. However, the department provides little guidance to school districts on how to document their use of these funds, and it does limited monitoring of the districts' expenditures. As a result, some school districts have inadequate documentation practices and sometimes spend funds for unallowable or questionable purposes. Of the 180 expenditures we tested, eight were for unallowable purposes and 43 were questionable. Most of the questionable expenditures related to purchases that had no contemporaneous documentation linking the expense to English learners or had documentation indicating that the purchased goods or services covered non-English learners as well as English learners. In addition, two of the eight school districts we reviewed spent ELAP funds at schools or on activities that are not covered by the grant award. One district spent $11 million in ELAP funds in fiscal year 2003-04 on an extended learning program that covered a range of underachieving students in kindergarten through eighth grade, even though ELAP funds are restricted to English learners in fourth through eighth grades.
Although the department measures school districts' success in improving English learner progress in language proficiency and academics based on student performance on statewide tests, its evaluation of the contribution of specific English learner programs to this success is weak. The State appears never to have evaluated the effectiveness of the Impact Aid program in improving the academic performance of English learners, although it was established more than 25 years ago. With regard to ELAP, program evaluators hired by the department have been unable to reach decisive conclusions on the program's value in part because school districts combine ELAP with other funding sources to pay for a variety of English learner services and because student performance results are not comparable across school districts.
Finally, although the department's formulas for distributing English learner program funds are generally sound, the funding formula for Impact Aid is complicated and likely outdated. The Legislative Analyst's Office (legislative analyst) has observed that the complexity of the Impact Aid formula results in district allocations that are hard to understand based on underlying school district demographics and that the formula is weighted heavily toward poverty. Further, a key statistic used in the formula, the number of students in families receiving assistance under the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program, has become less and less reflective of the population of students in poverty and is currently unavailable to the department. The governor vetoed a bill redirecting funds to study the Impact Aid formula, instead directing the Department of Finance and the Secretary of Education to work with the legislative analyst and the department to develop options for restructuring the formula. The department indicates that it will collaborate to develop a long-term solution for allocating Impact Aid funds, including determining an appropriate replacement for the CalWORKs data.
The department, in consultation with stakeholders, should establish required initial designation and redesignation criteria related to statewide tests that would provide greater consistency in the English learner population across the State. The department should pursue legislative action, as necessary, to achieve this goal. In addition, the department should require school districts to document redesignation decisions, including decisions against redesignating students who are candidates for fluent status.
School districts should ensure that their redesignation criteria include each of the four criteria required by state law for redesignating English learners to fluent status. They also should monitor their designation and redesignation processes more closely to ensure that schools actually complete the process and that school district databases accurately reflect all redesignations.
The department should consider changing the annual objective that measures students' annual progress in learning English to offer less incentive for school districts to maintain students as English learners.
The department should perform the steps necessary to ensure the school districts we reviewed have taken appropriate action to resolve their unallowable expenditures of supplemental English learner program funds.
The department should revise the documentation policy it provides to school districts to better ensure that expenditures are directed clearly at activities that serve the English learner programs' target populations.
School districts should implement documentation policies to ensure that expenditure files clearly demonstrate that supplemental English learner program funds are directed at activities that serve the law's target populations.
The department should continue to work with the Department of Finance, the legislative analyst, and the Legislature to revise the Impact Aid funding formula to include statistics that better measure the number of students in poverty.
Some school districts we reviewed are concerned that the report may be interpreted to imply that their more stringent redesignation criteria are inappropriate or that the results of the Bureau of State Audits' testing of student records may be misapplied to the entire population of English learners who are candidates for redesignation. Nevertheless, the school districts generally indicate that they intend to implement our recommendations.
The department believes that the law restrains it from establishing criteria that all school districts must follow. It also says that its monitoring efforts have been stronger than we indicate in the report. The department, however, intends to implement most of our recommendations.