In a Nutshell:
- With the state’s changing demographics, there has been a steady rise in the number of public school students requiring English language assistance.
- Understanding the prevalence and growth over time in the English Learner (EL) student population is important because of the long-standing academic achievement gaps between EL and non-EL students.
- After years of flat funding, the current-year state budget nearly doubled the amount of dedicated funding for programs serving EL students.
In addition to the headlines announcing that Michigan posted its first population increase after decades of stagnation, the release of the 2020 U.S. Census last summer confirmed that Michigan’s population also is becoming more diverse across multiple dimensions. This diversity is reflected in the growing numbers of Hispanics and Latinos, as well as Asians, residing in many communities. While these Michiganders saw their numbers rise since the 2010 census, the number of residents identifying as Black mostly held steady over the 10-year period.
The changing composition of the state’s overall population is also reflected, again on many dimensions, in the state’s school-age population. Just as the overall population grew more diverse over the previous 10 years, the makeup of our K-12 classrooms became less White and more racially and ethnically diverse. But, we did not have to wait until the release of the decennial census, to see the changes reflected in our public schools. The changing racial and ethnic mosaic of our public schools is reported annually by the state. The data show that white children were 70 percent of all elementary and secondary students in the 2009-10 school year, but that share dropped to 64 percent today. At the same time, the share of Hispanic students has nearly doubled.
The increase in K-12 student diversity, while certainly welcomed, comes with some challenges for policymakers concerned with the state’s public schools and the success of many of our young learners. For example, some of the diversity in our classrooms originates from foreign-born individuals arriving in Michigan with limited command of the English language. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the growth in Michigan’s foreign-born population outpaced the growth rate of the native-born population from 2000 to 2016. Many of these foreign-born school-age children are identified as English learners (EL), but it should also be noted that almost two-thirds of Michigan’s EL student population was native-born. English learner is used as a general term; it encompasses students across the entire English language learning continuum.
As discussed below, Michigan has seen explosive growth in this specific grouping of students. Public schools in Michigan and across the country have a legal obligation, as well as an ethical responsibility, to meet EL students’ many and varied learning needs. That means schools must ensure appropriate and adequate learning supports are provided, including properly-trained and qualified instructors and other staff assigned to deliver services.
Michigan’s stagnant population growth over the better part of the last two decades, combined with lower birth rates, has driven down the state’s school-age population. As a result, total enrollment across the state’s nearly 800 public K-12 school districts (traditional and charter schools combined) has been on a steady decline since the mid-2000s. The current statewide school enrollment is 15 percent smaller today than it was at its peak of 1.7 million students roughly twenty years ago.
Further, the unexpected disruptions caused by the pandemic accentuated this long-term trend last school year; there was a 60,000-plus student decline from fall 2019 (2019-20 school year) to fall 2020, an amount that exceeded the cumulative enrollment decline over the previous five years. The total number of students enrolling in public schools in fall 2021 (1.44 million students across all grades) increased less than one-half of one percent from 2020’s pandemic-induced historic low. Despite this small bump, the general downward trend in public school enrollment is projected to continue for the foreseeable future.
But, against the backdrop of this long-term statewide decline, one group of students has seen its numbers explode. The number of students in the process of mastering the English language rose from about 60,000 in the 2010-11 school year to nearly 92,000 today (2021-22). This represents a nearly 52 percent increase compared to a 10 percent decline for the total K-12 population over the same period. The COVID-19 pandemic had a disproportionate temporary impact on EL student enrollment, especially among refugee and immigrant EL students with the slowdown in travel.
Despite the impressive growth, English learners still make up a small portion of the total enrollment today (just 6.4 percent) compared to other student subgroups: economically disadvantaged students (51 percent) and students with disabilities (13.5 percent). Still, the growth in EL subgroup cannot be ignored, even in a national context. Across the United States, EL students made up 10.4 percent of all public elementary and second students in 2019, this is up from 8.1 percent in 2000. In Michigan, the EL share of all K-12 students more than doubled over the same period, from 2.9 percent in 2000 to 6.4 percent today.
English learners attend schools throughout the state, but there are high concentrations of these students in a number of pockets, primarily across the Lower Peninsula.
EL Student Enrollment Grouped by Intermediate School District, 2021
Source: CEPI, student enrollment count report
This map shows the share of EL students enrolled in public schools in 2020-21, grouped by the 56 intermediate school districts (ISDs). Intermediate school districts are regional agencies that coordinate and deliver select education services (special education, pupil accounting, preschool) to their constituent local districts, but they are not responsible for directly serving EL students. Grouping the EL student population at the ISD level presents a clearer statewide picture of the concentration. The largest share of EL students by ISD (14 percent) attend public schools located in Branch ISD (along the central Michigan/Ohio border), followed by Wayne ISD (13 percent) and Kent ISD (12 percent).
For those ISDs with the highest concentrations, their numbers are fueled by a handful of individual districts located within the ISD’s boundaries. Using Wayne ISD as an example, EL students make up almost two-thirds of Hamtramck’s total enrollment, while in Dearborn these students account for nearly one-half of the student body. For Detroit, the largest district in the state, English learners make up 11 percent of the total student body, nearly double the statewide average. These three districts collectively accounted for one-half of the roughly 34,000 EL students enrolled in traditional public and charter public schools in the ISD in 2021.
The map below provides a visual of where the growth in EL student enrollments has been the greatest. It shows the percentage point change of EL student enrollment share by ISD over a 10-year period (2011-12 to 2020-21). Most notably, only two ISDs experienced a reduction in the share of EL students attending public schools in their respective geographies, but these declines were very small (less than one-tenth of a percentage point). The other 54 ISDs saw some amount of increase in their respective shares of English learners, ranging from a fraction of a percentage point to more than five percentage points; Branch ISD (nearly nine percentage points), West Shore ISD (eight percentage points), and Wayne ISD (five percentage points).
Change in EL Student Enrollment by Intermediate School District, 2011-12 to 2020-21
Source: CEPI, student enrollment count report
Understanding the prevalence and growth in the EL population in Michigan is important because of the long-standing academic achievement gaps between EL and non-EL students, as measured by performance on state tests and graduation rates. There is evidence that Michigan policymakers are taking note of this growth and the elevated academic needs of these learners by directing additional resources towards services and programs. After years of flat funding, the current-year state budget nearly doubled the amount of dedicated funding (from $13 million to $25 millIon) for programs serving these students. Further, Governor Whitmer’s budget proposal for the upcoming 2022-23 fiscal year includes another five percent funding increase to support these students.