As Idaho’s ELL population grows, the budget is likely to follow

(UPDATED, 3:37 p.m., with budget details from the State Department of Education.)

Gov. Butch Otter and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra both want to put more money into helping the state’s growing numbers of English language learners.

Ultimately, the money could go into two areas: staffing and software.

The Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee took its first look Thursday at ELL funding — and the myriad other line items in Idaho’s K-12 budget proposal. Ybarra and her staff spent the nearly two hours walking through numbers and fielding questions.

When it comes to ELL, there was no dispute Thursday about the need to do something.

The number of ELL students has grown from 13,000 to 16,000 since 2015-16. As Ybarra told lawmakers Thursday, ELL accounts for one of the state’s largest achievement gaps, and the state’s chronic teacher shortage has a profound impact on ELL students.

This year, a $3.87 million line item provides extra dollars for school districts and charter schools that serve ELL students. That funding doesn’t go as far as it used to; it now translates to $210 per ELL student, down from $250 just two years ago.

Otter and Ybarra want to boost this line item to $4.87 million.

The Otter-Ybarra $1 million request would go straight to the districts, and about 90 percent of the money would likely go toward staffing, said Christina Nava, Ybarra’s director of ELL and migrant programs. After her budget hearing, Ybarra said the rising ELL enrollment makes the case for added ELL staffing.

But two JFAC members — Republican Reps. Wendy Horman of Idaho Falls and Steve Miller of Fairfield — wanted to talk Thursday about software. In 2017, Miller led the push for a line item earmarked for software designed to help students improve their English skills.

The $1.25 million went to Imagine Learning, a Provo, Utah-based vendor. Imagine Learning is no stranger to lawmakers; in 2016, the House Education Committee went on a field trip to Boise’s Garfield Elementary School, to watch refugee students use the company’s software to learn English and reading.

The software is a hot property. The $1.25 million was sufficient to get the software in the hands of 7,000 students, and schools and charters are still scrounging to get more copies. “There’s always room to grow,” Nava said.

And while the State Department of Education is expecting to get data on the Imagine Learning rollout in the next couple of weeks, but Ybarra is encouraged. “It gets results,” she said.

Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield

Miller says he’s been a believer in the Imagine Learning software since he saw it in action in a Twin Falls classroom three years ago. He has heard good reviews from educators on the ground, but he also wants to see the SDE’s data when it arrives.

“I’m big on outcomes,” he said after Thursday’s JFAC hearing.

Miller said he’d be open to finding more money for ELL software. But he might not have to.

On Thursday afternoon, spokeswoman Allison Westfall said Ybarra’s 2018-19 budget request already includes $1.25 million to make Imagine Learning’s software available to an additional 7,000 students.

More reading: Full coverage from Ybarra’s budget presentation.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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