Report From Century Foundation: English Learners and School Choice: Helping Charter Schools Serve Multilingual Families

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Report From Century Foundation: English Learners and School Choice: Helping Charter Schools Serve Multilingual Families

American public schools today are perhaps more linguistically and culturally diverse than at any other point in American history. Over twelve million school-aged U.S. children speak a non-English language at home—about one-quarter of all children between five and seventeen years old. That represents an increase of more than 2.5 million children since 2000.1 Nearly one in ten U.S. students is currently classified as an English learner (EL), and there are one million more ELs in U.S. schools today than in 2000.2 Critically, these children’s numbers are not only growing in traditional immigrant-arrival states, such as California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois, but also in less-traditional immigrant gateway states, such as Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas.3 Unsurprisingly, regional and national interest in extending access to equitable educational opportunities for ELs has grown commensurately.

During the same period, charter schools have become an increasingly large portion of the U.S. public education landscape. In 2000, charter schools enrolled just shy of 450,000 students. In 2015–16, charters enrolled over 2.8 million students.4 While this growth has many causes, the charter movement has advanced partly on the strength of promises that these schools can disrupt rigid educational inequities baked into traditional school districts’ enrollment patterns. Charters can provide educational options for historically underserved families who generally would have few alternatives to the schools assigned to them by their school districts.

The question is, then, considering these parallel growth patterns, how can policymakers support charter schools so that they can better meet the needs of the burgeoning community of English learners? What is the experience of ELs in charter schools today? Do ELs have equitable access to charter schools, or do barriers persist? How can the flexibility of the charter model help schools accommodate EL students in unique ways?

Unfortunately, the research on how charter schools serve ELs and multilingual families5 is relatively limited. Furthermore, it is far from clear whether current education policies themselves—both those governing charter schools and those shaping EL education alike—support ELs’ equitable access to, and success in, these schools...

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