The Cost of Providing an Adequate Education to English Language Learners: A Review of the Literature

Issue/Topic: English Language Learner/Bilingual; Finance--Funding Formulas
Author(s): Jimenez-Castellanos, Oscar; Topper, Amelia
Publication: Review of Educational Research
Published On: 5/16/2012

English language learners (ELLs) represented 21% of all school-age children and 11% of all public school enrollments nationally in 2009. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, public schools are mandated to provide academic and fiscal resources to help ELLs overcome language barriers and gain English proficiency. Determining what resources are needed and how much they cost continues to be a challenge however, in part, because school finance literature has largely failed to focus on ELLs.

To understand the cost study literature as it relates to the treatment of ELL students, both in terms of adequacy and generating funding recommendations, in the four major costing out methodologies and to present future avenues for ELL cost study research.


Costing out studies largely underserve ELL students.  Studies either fail to mention ELL students altogether or aggregate them with low-income or special education students to generate an overall per pupil funding weight. Although this simplifies the calculation of funding formulas, states run the risk of allocating fewer instructional and fiscal resources to populations with more need by failing to account for the unique needs of each populations.

The authors reviewed four primary cost study methodologies: Professional judgement panel (PJP), succcessful school model (SSM), evidence-based model, and cost function analysis.

  • All share common limitations: heavy reliance on standardized test scores to define adequacy, limited data on special needs populations, and the inability to address the appropriate and efficient use of resources.
  • While the majority of studies acknowledged ELL students in their model, they did not necessarily account for them in their cost analyses or funding recommendations.
  • The studies universally recommended increases to per pupil base costs and categorical aid to students with special needs, although funding recommendations varied significantly across states and methodologies. This fact underscores the general lack of concerted inquiry and over-all complexity of determining how much ELLs cost to educate.
  • Only 4 of 70 studies specifically focused on ELLs.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:
Considerations for a framework for conducting cost studies that more authentically account for ELL students:
  • Define adequacy measures that are applicable and relevant to ELLs.
  • Take into account the diversity of ELL students in cost study research.
  • Use multiple cost study methodologies because using multiple methods together derives the most accurate base and categorical aid costs.

Additional research is needed to assess whether and how districts are using the categorical aid allocated to ELLs. Discussion on how to account for and distribute funds to districts, especially when there are large increases in categorical aid allocations, is also warranted.

Research Design:
Literature review

70 empirical cost studies

Year data is from:


Data Collection and Analysis:
A review of 70 empirical cost studies that (a) come from peer-reviewed journals or commissioned reports that used one of the four primary cost study methodologies and (b) were published after 1990 and focused on generating statewide funding recommendations at the district level.


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