In hopes of boosting student achievement, Gov. Mark Dayton wants to boost funding for the state's English language learning programs by about $4.5 million a year, a 12 percent increase over current levels.
The governor's proposal is aimed at helping the 65,000 students in Minnesota for whom English is not a first language.
The state spends $40 million a year helping those students learn English, while they also study math, reading, writing, and other subjects.
If approved by the Legislature, the increased funding would benefit students like those in a Chaska Elementary School classroom, where dozens of students still learning the basics of English spend about an hour each day.
On a recent day, teachers Mark Magnuson and Sarah Peterson worked with a dozen fifth-graders on reading and writing. Among the students is 11-year old Vladimir, called Vlad by other students.
He's been in the class since he first came to the United States from Russia, two years ago.
"I only knew two words," Vlad said of his first days, "Yes and no."
Vlad said his very limited English made it hard to answer even the simplest of questions from his teachers, including "What is your name?"
"I say 'no,' " Vlad recalled. "I had no idea what they were speaking about."
Today, Vlad is on his way to becoming proficient in English, his teachers said.
So are others in the program.
"The goal is that they're successful in school, that they can have a fighting chance," said Liisa Gilbert, English learning coordinator for the Eastern Carver County School District. "The same fighting chance as native English speakers."
Last year, the district spent $1.3 million on English language programs. But it only received about $300,000 in state and federal funding specifically for English Language programs.
“By extending resources out a few more years, we think that's going to really help achieve their standards and be able to read and do math on grade level.”Brenda Cassellius, Department of Education commissioner
Gilbert said the district uses money from its general fund to cover the gap.
"We hire teachers based on the needs of our students," she said. "What we get from the state funding and federal funding for these students does not nearly cover what we spend on programming."
If the governor's request is approved by state legislators, Eastern Carver County school district officials estimate that could increase their English language funding from the state by $80,000 to $120,000.
Peterson said increased state funding could allow her to spend more time with English learners, and possibly allow the school to hire another teacher.
"So for us to have more time or another individual on staff would be wonderful," she said. "It would really service the kids in an effective way."
The state currently funds programming for English learners for five years. Dayton's proposal, included in a $640 million increase he wants to see in the state's pre-school, K-12 and higher education budgets, would expand that to seven years.
Dayton has proposed funding the increased spending with higher income taxes on the state's top earners, a move even some members of his party aren't backing just yet.
The proposed boost in spending on English language learning is part of an effort to help the state's English learners do better in school, state Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said.
"So by extending resources out a few more years, we think that's going to really help achieve their standards and be able to read and do math on grade level," Cassellius said.
English learners perform far below the state average in reading, math and science, although there have been recent improvements in test scores. Only slightly more than half graduate from high school in four years.
English learners make up 8 percent of the state's total K-12 enrollment, but their numbers are increasing. Educators say the number of immigrant students arriving with little or no formal schooling is also growing.
Students who come to Minnesota after living in a refugee camp, for example, require more time to learn English.
"The longer time frame really does recognize that we have English learners in our state without prior schooling, with different needs," said Martha Bigelow, an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. "Maybe they're long-term English learners and need different support."
Minnesota lawmakers have yet to take up the governor's proposed increase for English language programs.