Thursday, August 2, 2007

Who Pays for Educating Immigrant Kids?

The Hilliard ThisWeek newspaper published an article today about the challenge of educating the many immigrant kids who have come to the Hilliard community in recent years. Andy Riggle, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, reported that there are now over 800 kids in our district who are ELL (English Language Learners), up from about 750 last year. That's a decrease front recent annual rates, reports Dr. Riggle, but growth continues.

It is clear that educating these students costs our district more than it does to educate a kid with English fluency. A less obvious truth is that most of these kids live in multi-family apartment complexes that generates much less tax income per student than does a single family home.

As detailed in my SaveHilliardSchools website, we already have huge funding problem caused by the fact that residential housing growth creates more cost than revenue for the schools. Having to also provide special instruction for the ELL kids just exacerbates the problem.

But let's not overreact to this.

If I've distilled the correct numbers from this article, Dr. Riggle says we have 41 people working with the ELL kids, of which 17.5 are tutors. I will assume that it means the other 23.5 are teachers. Maybe these are incremental teachers, or perhaps they represent the same number of teachers we would have employed for this many kids anyway (about one teacher for every 30 kids).

I spent my career in a business which had an economic structure not unlike a school district. Our primary costs were facilities and personnel, and everything else was almost insignificant. That doesn't mean you ignore the other cost components, but it means you had better understand completely how activity levels change costs, and which factors are the key drivers of cost. It's not always as obvious as it seems.

The tendency can be to divide this number by that number and come up with some important-sounding ratio. For example, the Big Number often used (including by me), is the Per Pupil Spending. Our district officials report that number to be $9,860 per year. With 14,949 students, you would expect our total annual spending to be about $147 million. While you will not find that exact number on the district's financial reports, the projected number for FY2008 is $148 million. Close enough.

But if one kid moves into the district, do our costs immediately go up by $9,860? Of course not. Nor does it go down that much if a kid moves out. This overall average cost is an important number to know, but you also have to know what happens if you change things just a little. That's called a marginal analysis.

In the case of the ELL program, there can be a temptation to say that since 41 people work with the ELL kids, the cost is the $315,000 for the tutors (calculated above), plus another $1.4 million for the 23.5 teachers making on average $60,000/yr. That adds up to about $1.7 million, and against the $250,000 of state and federal support the Superintendent says we receive, it doesn't seem like much. I could understand his being alarmed by these numbers.

But what if there was a miracle and those 800 ELL kids came to school one morning with perfect English fluency? Would we still need some or all of those 23.5 teachers? If you feel we don't, then it implies two other things: a) we can absorb 800 more kids into the system without any incremental teachers; or, b) there's a bunch of teachers sitting on their hands for the time the ELL kids are in their immersion programs.

Our other primary cost is facilities: have we built special facilities for ELL instruction? If those 800 kids were English fluent, would we have empty space?

I think the tutors might be the primary incremental cost. They are paid around $25/hr, according to School Board minutes. The question is how many hours they work, but let's assume 4 hours/day for 180 days. That works out to be about $18,000/yr per tutor. For all 17.5 tutors, that adds up to $315,000 or so.

Sounds to me like the local burden (i.e. net of the state/federal support) for these ELL kids is something on the order of $65,000, or probably less than the cost of one incremental teacher (avg salary $59,650 + benefits).

When an organization's cost structure is mostly fixed costs, these kinds of incremental analyses are tricky. One must know that neither the gross average, nor the marginal cost is the right number all by itself. You have to build scenarios and gain a feel for how things change.

The fundamental funding issue in our community has been, and continues to be, the fact that we have had an explosion in residential housing in our community without commensurate growth in commercial development. For decades, the Hilliard community has enjoyed the benefits of a small community with significant commercial tax revenue sources. Over the past few years, the residential population has exploded and the commercial successes of late have mainly been replacements for businesses lost in the last decade (remember Dana, Gates-McDonald, and CompuServe?).

That means more kids, more cost, and no incremental help from business growth. Nor is the State of Ohio helping us out. While our increased population means more state income tax is being generated in our community, most of it is being redirected to urban and rural school districts.

That means the homeowners in our community must bear the entire burden of growth. I came to realize this a couple of years ago, and have been pleading since with the School Board to educate the community on this crucial fact.

Instead the Board and the Superintendent have spent their time complaining about less important issues, such as the burden of ELL students, and campaigning for an ill-conceived new funding approach.

As a result, our community is going to be stunned by the next levy request, to be put on the ballot in May 08.

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