Poor English Skills Cost Latinos $38 Billion in Missed Wages Annually

by Christopher Paslay

More needs to be done to break Latinos from the vicious cycle of linguistic isolation.

Remember the late great Joey Vento, owner of Geno’s Steaks,  and his infamous Speak English sign?  Well, a newly released study from the Lexington Institute shows that the inability to speak proper English is keeping Latinos from more than just South Philly Cheesesteaks:

Spanish-speaking Americans with poor English skills miss out on $38 billion in earnings each year, according to a new study by the Lexington Institute.

“The latest Census results show that we are seeing poor English skills passing down from one generation to the next, with Spanish speakers paying the heaviest price in economic terms,” said Don Soifer, Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute and one of the authors of the study, The Value of English Proficiency to the United States Economy. “We need to do better at breaking these cycles of linguistic isolation.”

On average, each adult with poor English skills earns $3,000 per year less than he would have earned as a proficient English speaker. By comparison, the wage penalty facing Latinos who do not earn a high school diploma is $4,700.

The population of English learners in the United States has grown substantially in recent decades, to over 25 million, according to the 2010 Census. More than five million of these English learners are currently attending U.S. elementary and secondary schools. Only one in four is foreign-born — the rest are second- or third-generation Americans.

“When it comes to closing the language gap between English learners and other students, we are seeing widely varying results nationally, with small gains,” Soifer noted.

The report, The Value of English Proficiency to the United States Economy, is available online here.

States With Large English Learner Populations, 2010


LEP Population Percent Share





New York


New Jersey













Source: 2010 American Community Survey, Table B16001, “Language Spoken at Home by Ability to Speak English for the Population 5 Years and Over”

Why Charter Schools Exist Mainly Among Urban Poor

by Christopher Paslay

Outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, charter schools in Pennsylvania are virtually nonexistent.  One reason is that socioeconomically disadvantaged children and their families are easier to manipulate.      

Here are some basic facts about charter schools in the state of Pennsylvania.  In 2011, only 54.7 percent made AYP under the No Child Left Behind Law.  Stanford University’s CREDO report, which examined the performance of Pennsylvania charter schools from 2007 to 2010, concluded:

“Overall, charter school performance in Pennsylvania lagged in growth compared to traditional public schools. . . . Performance at cyber charter schools was substantially lower than the performance at brick and mortar charters with 100% of cyber charters performing significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts in both reading and math. . . . Charter schools of all ages in Pennsylvania on average perform worse than traditional public schools, and charter school students grow at lower rates compared to their traditional public school peers in their first 3 years in charter schools, although the gap shrinks considerably in math and disappears entirely in reading by the third year of attendance.”

There are 3,096 public schools in Pennsylvania, yet only 142 of them—one half of one percent—are charters.  Of these 142 charters, 80 of them (56 percent) are in Philadelphia, another 15 are in the Pittsburgh/Allegheny area, and the remaining 47 are sparsely scattered throughout the rest of the state.  Outside of poor urban areas, charter schools are practically nonexistent.             

If charters are the new fix for “failing” public schools, why haven’t they caught on in the suburbs?  Why haven’t they caught on in rural areas or mountain regions?  The answer is because charters are not better than traditional public schools, and there are heaps of data to prove this.  Most families outside of urban areas understand this reality, which is why charters and their enterprising operators have been unable to successfully set-up shop there.  Suburbanites don’t want charters, they don’t want business people with limited educational experience messing with their children and controlling their school resources (the head of the Philadelphia Parking Authority recently proposed opening a charter, if you can believe that).  Why, then, are charters so widely accepted in Philadelphia?        

One reason might be that 80.6 percent of families of public school children in Philadelphia are economically disadvantaged, and they are easier to take advantage of.  Yes, they are being taken advantage of, and here’s how. 

First, charters falsely advertise they are superior academically, despite all the research showing otherwise.  Many urban poor are not in a position to access research on charter school performance, so they simply believe what they hear or are told; the propagandistic film Waiting for Superman is a case in point.  In short, the urban poor are being misled.    

Second, charter schools discriminate and play by their own rules.  It is a documented fact that charter schools fail to serve the neediest population of children.  KIPP charters (Knowledge Is Power Program) are a prime example.  Because KIPP schools have extended school days and hold classes on weekends, the student turnover rate is extremely high for Black males—over 40 percent dropout between grades 6 – 8.  As a result, these students are sent back to neighborhood schools.  In addition, KIPP is criticized for not serving more English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

Although there’s yet to be any noteworthy litigation in Pennsylvania against charter operators (the key word is yet), parents of school children in Louisiana have filed a class-action lawsuit against the New Orleans school system, arguing that their charters exclude special-needs students.  The Miami Herald recently wrote a series titled “Cashing In on Kids” which highlighted the fact that South Florida charter operators are getting rich on “school choice” by admitting very few special needs children and minorities into their schools.  This discrimination is widespread and very real.  I’ve personally met numerous parents whose children are on waiting lists to get into a charter—or have been removed from a charter—because they couldn’t pass the muster.                 

Third, charters take money away from struggling neighborhood schools.  Interestingly, it’s not academics that attracts many urban parents to charter schools.  The lure of charters seems to be the fact that many are cleaner, safer, and smaller than big, decaying neighborhood schools.  This is true in some cases, but there’s a reason: charters weed out dysfunctional children and their struggling families, and siphon money away from traditional neighborhood schools that could be used for upgrade and repair.

This is a clear civil rights violation, and sets in motion a cycle of 21st century school segregation.  As time goes on, as charters continue to expand, there will be more and more separation between charters and traditional schools, until the neediest 30 – 40 percent (made up of primarily English Language Learners, the disabled, and those children with social, emotional, and behavioral disorders) are left completely behind.  In other words, despite the big promises, charters by their very nature will never help a large population of the urban poor.                           

And many socioeconomically disadvantaged parents don’t understand this.  They view clean, neat, nifty new charters as a lottery ticket, and jump at it.  Little do they know that there’s a good chance that their child won’t get into that school, that their son or daughter will be left behind in the forgotten neighborhood school, which has been further weaken by the existence of the charter. Sure, those lucky enough to get into a charter may have a cleaner, safer, more appropriate learning environment, but this is only achieved at the expense of the neediest 30 – 40 percent of children plagued with disorders who are weeded out and left behind.  This might be acceptable in a private school using private funds, but it’s unconstitutional when it’s being done with public tax dollars.   

If only urban parents could see that making a commitment to their neighborhood school—like parents do in most other parts of the state—would be a better solution in the long run.  If only they could team up with elected officials to generate the resources needed to complete building renovations and repairs, upgrade materials, and invest in technology.  If only they could convince educational policy makers to revamp curriculum to make it more individualized and authentic, and expand alternative schools and programs to remediate troubled youth.  If only they could convince local leaders to invest in families and communities in order to create a culture of learning available to all children within the bounds of a neighborhood, instead of running away.                             

Although charters in Pennsylvania don’t outperform traditional neighborhood schools academically, they do turn a large profit.  Privatization of public schools (and tax dollars) is a big business, and unlike the more advantaged populations of Pennsylvania, the urban poor are prime real estate.

Readers respond to ‘School reform’s alphabet’

by Christopher Paslay

My most recent Philadelphia Inquirer commentary, “School reform’s alphabet,” has generated some interesting feedback from readers. 


The day after I published the article I received an email from a New York City public school teacher.  In it he wrote,


On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I was pleasantly surprised to read your article regarding “accommodations” in The Philadelphia Inquirer. This surprise comes from the fact that as a teacher in NYC, I have yet to read any editorials in the New York Times that are from a teacher’s perspective. Even more importantly, but less surprising, is that most editorials vilify teachers, holding them accountable for all society’s woes.
Having written numerous letters to the New York Times, I only wish we had a voice in our city press as you appear to have in yours—maybe I should move to Philly.
Keep up the good work.



I’d like to take this time to officially thank V. C. for writing.

The responses weren’t all positive, of course.  Kelly Darr of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and Len Rieser of the Education Law Center teamed up and wrote a letter to the Inquirer which came to the defense of English language learners and children with disabilities.  The two explained that such groups have a federal right to accommodations. 


The only problem is my article never said English language learners and the disabled shouldn’t receive extra help.  I simply pointed out public education’s double standard and suggested that accountability shouldn’t stop with school teachers.


I must have really ruffled Len Rieser’s feathers because he also used his column at The Philadelphia Public School Notebook to blog about my article.  His post, headlined “Why can’t they just teach their kids English” repeated the points he made in his letter to the Inquirer: that English language learners have a right to accommodations.  Again, although I insinuated that parents of immigrants should shoulder some of the language burden, nowhere in my commentary did I call for their services to be taken away.


Len also took issue with my comment about the Philadelphia School District spending large amounts of money on special teachers for children of immigrants.  I wrote,


If you just moved to this country and haven’t taught your son a word of English, there will be accommodations. The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers for him.   


Obviously, when you read my statements in the context of the whole article, it’s clear I meant the district has allocated big bucks on ELL services as a whole.  Yet somehow Len got hung up on the word “him” and said:


On, then, to the assertion that “The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers for [your son].”  In fact, the District spends a total of $6,960.63 per year, per student (according to 2007-08 figures, the most recent available), for the entire instructional program – so if we assume a seven-period day, two periods of which are devoted to ESOL (which would be unusual), we’re looking at maybe $2,000. Moreover, since that ESOL class replaces “regular” English, there’s a partial wash in terms of cost.


At this rate, your son would have to spend fifty years in ESOL before he would have consumed even the first of the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” that he is accused of costing the system.     


This misinterpretation is the result of one of two things: One—Len must have been burning the midnight oil when he wrote his blog and as a result his thinking was a little bit fuzzy; or two—Len purposely twisted my words in the grand tradition of The Philadelphia Public School Notebook. 


Either way I’d like to say thanks—I’m flattered by the attention.  Oh, and on a side note: I checked the Philadelphia School District’s 2009-10 budget, and they actually spend $34,462,499 on English language learners.  That’s 34 MILLION, with an “M”.  I guess I underestimated.


God Bless.


Children of Illegals Should be Schooled in Their Own Homes

by Christopher Paslay

During the summer of 1998 I backpacked through seven different European countries: Ireland, England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Denmark. One thing that stunned me was that everyone—no matter which town or region—seemed to speak fluent English. Whether I was struggling to order a meal or asking directions to the train, people would drop their first language to accommodate me in my own tongue.

The language situation is much different in the United States. Our mentality is the opposite of Europe’s, and can be summed up in the infamous sign at Geno’s Steaks in South Philadelphia: When ordering, please speak English.

Americans seem to have a genuine hostility toward those who come to this country and can’t speak English.

The Notebook, an independent newspaper covering Philadelphia public schools, dedicated their fall 2008 edition to the theme of immigration and English Language Learners. In their editorial, “An asset squandered,” The Notebook analyzes Philadelphia’s growing population of immigrants. The conclusion they draw is interesting: immigrants—specifically, English language learners—should be viewed as an asset rather than a liability.

The Notebook’s reasoning is that “today’s English language learners could be the next generation of bilingual teachers, doctors, law enforcement officers, and businesspeople essential to the increasingly global and multicultural economy.” They go on to argue that “this can only happen if they get a good education.”

As an English teacher in a Philadelphia public high school, I understand the importance of children having solid communication skills. Knowing how to read, write and speak proper English is essential to succeeding in school as well as in society. And with an influx of non-English speakers coming to America, our country is going to need well educated bilingual future leaders.

However, I do believe the conclusion drawn in The Notebook’s editorial is a tad idealistic. For starters, they fail to indicate whether the recent waves of immigrants to Philadelphia are legal or illegal. A 2006 survey by the US Census Bureau reports that 6.3% of Philadelphian’s are not U.S. Citizens. I realize that a child is a child, regardless of citizenship, and that all children deserve an education.

But our city’s resources are limited, especially those of the Philadelphia School District. In my opinion, illegals have no right to special language programs, period. In fact, I believe the government needs to do more to keep illegals out of the country all together. Just like I tell my students that there are rules in the classroom that need to be followed to keep order and balance, so are there rules in this country that must be obeyed and respected.

So who is responsible for teaching illegals the English language? The people who brought them here illegally, of course. Parents, grandmothers, aunts or uncles. They must take on the burden of their new venture into America.

The push for more resources for English language learners has a built-in shield for illegal immigrants. This is an issue that must be brought to light.

Of course, the question still remains: What about those children who are here legally? This is a tricky subject as well. In light of my travels outside the United States, I’m more open to accommodating English language learners. However, responsibility for teaching them English must be equally embraced by parents and the community; teachers and schools should not be made the scapegoat for their language deficiencies.

Education does not take place in a vacuum. Parents and the community should take equal responsibility for educating legal English language learners, while illegals should be taught the language in their own homes.