How Do Immigrant Children Fare in Virginia Schools?

by James A. Bacon

Based on an analysis of 2019 data, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that 250,000 “unauthorized” immigrants reside in Virginia. Two out of five (39%) of these unauthorized residents have children. These children attend Virginia schools.

It’s often difficult to measure the impact of illegal immigration on American society, but the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) collects statistics that give us a sense of the challenge faced by Virginia’s public school system. According to VDOE data, 137,000 students were classified as “English Learners” in the 2023-24 school year, while another 46,000 were described as “former” English Learners. Whether or not they came to the U.S. legally is impossible to discern from VDOE data, but given the influx of illegal border crossings in recent years, it is likely that a significant percentage is “unauthorized.”

Here is one inescapable conclusion that can be drawn from the VDOE enrollment database: The number of English Learners in Virginia public schools has tripled over the past 20 years. The number surged from 60,000 in the 2003-04 school year to 137,000 in 2023-24, as seen in the graph above and detailed in the table below.

One in nine students in Virginia public schools today is an English Learner.

Virginia Public School English Language Learners broken down by racial/ethnic category.

The vast majority are Hispanic, although the number of Asians is significant. Most Black English Learners originate from Africa and Haiti. We know from other data that only a tiny fraction of the “White” students come from Europe. Middle Easterners and North Africans are counted in the U.S. Census classification system as White, so it is likely that most students classified as White have immigrated from the Middle East.

Various questions arise from these numbers. One is what it costs to educate these children. Is the skyrocketing number of illegal immigrants a cost driver in K-12 schools? If so, what burden does that create for taxpayers?

Another question, more interesting to my mind, is what happens to these kids once they enter the school system. How do they fare? Do they languish in poverty and failure? Or do they assimilate and adapt?

It goes without saying that, all other things being equal, a student who is not fluent in English will have a more difficult time mastering classroom material than will a student who is. Not unexpectedly, a large educational achievement gap shows up in the Standards of Learning test statewide results for 2023-24.

Statewide SOL pass rates, all grades, all subjects.

English Learners struggle across the board, scoring “pass proficient” (the basic pass rate) at rates one-half to one-third of their native-born peers. It is reasonable to wonder how this gap might be closed. Is the solution to expend greater resources — hire more English as a Second Language teachers, for instance — or should the responsibility fall to some degree upon the students themselves? Do immigrant youth pick up English on their own and does their academic performance improve over time?

I cannot answer that question without a more in-depth analysis than I can provide in this blog post, but I’ll provide a clue by with a close-up of Virginia’s largest school district, Fairfax County, where spending averaged $18,800 per student last year, far above the statewide average.

Fairfax County SOL pass rates

As can be seen by comparing tables, Fairfax County English Learners scored roughly the same in 2023-24 as their statewide counterparts in Reading, Math and Science, but they performed even more dismally in writing and history. Fewer than one in 10 passed their writing exams! Clearly, there is more to the story here than adequacy of resources. A deeper analysis would delve into the performance of socioeconomic and racial/ethnic sub-groups as well as standards and expectations that prevail in Fairfax County and other school districts.

What can we learn by looking at racial/ethnic differences? This table shows the gap between economically disadvantaged and advantaged students (essentially, those on free school lunch plans and those who are not) broken down by racial/ethnic category.

Clearly, economic status is a critical variable. Among Hispanic students, who account for more than two-thirds of all English Learners, Not Disadvantaged students passed their English reading test at almost three times the rate of their Economically Disadvantaged fellows. There were wide gaps as well among Whites and Asians, with the smallest differential found among disadvantaged Blacks.

It would be interesting to look at one more variable from a statewide perspective before closing this post. What happens to former English Learners? How well do they fare once they are deemed fluent in the language? (See the detailed guidelines for assessing English language proficiency here.) Unfortunately, VDOE’s database does not break out former-English Learners as a separate category; it lumps them in with all English Learners. But it is evident that the academic achievement of ex-ELs improves dramatically. Adding this group bumps up the overall performance of ELs in Reading from a 32.3% pass rate to 48.7% pass rate.

It would be worthwhile to crunch the numbers to tease out the performance of ex-English Learners to see how they compare to their U.S.-born peers. It would be a good measure of how upwardly mobile these immigrants are academically, which is a foretoken of how upwardly mobile they will be economically.

The massive influx of English Learner immigrants into Virginia puts a strain on the public education system — more than $1 billion just in state funding — and depresses average SOL scores. But we may need to credit the system with helping propel tens of thousands of English Learners into the ranks of English-fluent students who may perform as well as their U.S.-born classmates (as low a bar as that may be). Who knows, perhaps immigrant children out-perform their classmates once they master English. We’ll examine the numbers in a future post.

Update: The Virginia Mercury published an article focusing on what happens to unaccompanied minors when they arrive in the country. The Mercury reports that 33,800 children have been released into a sponsor’s care in Virginia alone. Another challenge faced by these children is a high rate of absenteeism. Many get discouraged by their inability to keep up with school work; some take jobs to generate income.

 

 


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40 responses to “How Do Immigrant Children Fare in Virginia Schools?”

  1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    "There were wide gaps as well among Whites and Asians, with the smallest differential found among disadvantaged Blacks."

    So… black economically disadvantaged students out perform white economically disadvantaged students but white non-disadvantaged students out perform black non-disadvantaged students. Could this be some sort of sign of inequity in the system or society…?

      1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        Really, so black disadvantaged youth perform nearly as well as Asian disadvantaged youth, disproving the favorite “culture” Conservative excuse for black’s lower scores overall… so with that explanation gone, what is left… ?

        1. DJRippert Avatar
          DJRippert

          If I'm reading this right …

          White Not Disadvantaged has lower English pass rates than both Asian and Hispanic Not Disadvantaged.

          Kind of hard to keep that White Supremacist vibe going with those results, no?

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Some white slow learners, i.e., “the fine people on that side”,
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwPG7mBm7hU&t=87s

      1. walter smith Avatar
        walter smith

        Yeah, those Feds running fake white supremacist groups do have to be even slower learners than the regular D voter/ballot harvester type…

      2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        Update from the founder Rosseau: "We are absolutely desperate for new people. We've been in the 220's to 230's membership rut for nearly a full year.""

        Nice try. This show is dedicated to slow white learners of the left.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZCgbGgA-_8

      3. Bedfordboy Avatar
        Bedfordboy

        Speaking of slow learners, you and Biden are the last two people on earth trotting out the "fine people" trope after even Snopes judged it false. Fine company you keep.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Some clarity is required. I keep forgetting our moderator is not neutral on this subject.

          Mutually exclusive means no overlap, but not mutually exclusive doesn’t mean a 100% overlap. Think Venn.

          Everyone has a cause, and everyone has their reasons for that cause, but if your cause draws an inordinate amount of support from white supremacists, antisemitics, Nazis, Christofascists then maybe you need to redesign the parameters of your cause. You risk having your cause appropriated by those who will destroy it. Thus, it was with Confederate statuary.

  2. Thomas Dixon Avatar
    Thomas Dixon

    Is unauthorized the new 1984 speak now?

  3. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    Where did Migration Policy Institute get the actual SOL data?

  4. Any data on whether or not these students to fail to learn are held back a grade until they do learn the material?
    Is that even done anymore?

  5. Teddy007 Avatar
    Teddy007

    Rule No. 2 of education is that gaps never close. Rule No. 1 is that one can either have high standards or high pass rates but not both.

      1. Teddy007 Avatar
        Teddy007

        But on NAEP scores, Mass has one of the highest gaps between white and black students. DODEA should never be used for comparisons since child comes from a family where at least one part has a job and has above a cut off on an IQ-like test.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar
          LarrytheG

          I had not seen the gap in Mass… is there a link to it?

          1. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            You are correct. Thanks for the link!

            The second one I haven't figured out how to use yet! Not "proficient" at that!

          2. Teddy007 Avatar
            Teddy007

            It was not intuitively obvious to the user. One has to wait why the query runs.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            I found out. it’s not “instantaneous”! The “gap” is longstanding and widespread…but
            the reasons for it are no simple.

  6. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    The One Subject Plan at Fork Union is the perfect remedy for the disparities. 7 weeks. One subject. Same teacher. 6 hours of instruction per day. Class size of 8-15. 90 minutes of supervised homework/study every night. The school boards could save bundles of money. For the want of a voucher?
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f9dc53a07b4fecfa404b96daede4cd91d0fea131a2a8f8a19c497f55828a5ed1.jpg

  7. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    What is the basis of your claim or implication that education of English learners costs "more than $1 billion just in state funding"? The current state budget provides $166 million in state funds in FY 2025 for English Learner Teachers and $170.3 million in FY 2026. I admit that is not pocket change, but it is a long way from $1 billion.

    1. Randy Huffman Avatar
      Randy Huffman

      Just a simple observation. Assuming Virginia Mercury data is correct at 33,800 new children, and using a cost of $15,000, assuming Fairfax of $18,800 is high for the entire state, that would add up to about $500 Million. Now that of course is just those released into sponsor care. I have no idea where
      Jim’s figure comes from, and there is nothing stating time periods in his number or the number from Mercury’s report, but it would appear the State budget is understated.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        Using system-wide averages and applying them to a subset of the system is always misleading. That $15,000 per pupil cost includes a lot of administrative costs that would be incurred regardless of the whether that subset existed. To get at the cost of a particular group. one has to look at incremental cost–how much would be saved if that subset did not exist? The best number for that is the cost of ESL teachers.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          plus epsilon for certain support materials. But then better a good underestimate rather than a grossly wrong overestimate.

        2. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          plus epsilon for certain support materials. But then better a good underestimate rather than a grossly wrong overestimate.

        3. Randy Huffman Avatar
          Randy Huffman

          To some limited extent that argument can be made, but many schools may be at capacity so you have to load facilities, and you cannot argue there is no administrative costs associated with additional students and programs. You are taking their time away from other activities. Incremental cost approach is sometimes used for pricing and other short term strategies but your kidding yourself in the long term.

          I think fully loaded costs is more appropriate, that is what a school would be using for reporting purposes.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            The $15K is State + Local + Fed funding, right?

            And it includes, maintenance, operations and transportation.

            If you look at most schools, 1/2 of the employee are not instructors.

            And in the richer schools districts, a lot of things that are beyond core education.

            If you look at a rural school with bare-bones funding, a better idea of how much is actually spend on core education.

      2. The budget figures are extremely misleading.

        I'll bet the teachers who are teaching these kids also teach native English speakers as well as performing a lot of other tasks, none of which are singled out in the budget.

        My wife taught English in Virginia for 35 years — English, Debate, Drama, as well as English as a Second Language. If her salary were to be charged against only her ESL teaching, that would skew the figures dramatically.

    2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Prince William County is using 14.6 million in state funds for English Learners programs. I searched the budget. Not much presented to the school board in terms of how much of the 1.5 billion dollar school budget is allocated towards English Learners. My bet is the lowest number demanded by the Standards of Quality. ESL programs in Loudoun were always the red headed step kids of the school budget.

    3. VDOE counts 183,000 English Learners and ex-English Learners. The Commonwealth spends on average more than $6,000 per student per year. (I'm not even counting local dollars). That amounts to $1.1 billion.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    So, why would we educate kids of undocumented parents in the first place? Is this something that would change if the GOP took control and made changes?

    1. You are right. Don't educate them. Stick them on an assembly line or put them to work washing dishes in a restaurant.

  9. While the tone of this article is negative toward non-native English learners, I find this to be a positive development.

    In the first place, you are talking about school-aged kids. They came here more than likely brought by their parents — who see to it that the kids are enrolled in school and start learning English.

    Good for them, and, welcome.

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