Who should pay for ESL?

The backlash over teaching immigrants English

VICTOR DWYER April 14 1997

Who should pay for ESL?

The backlash over teaching immigrants English

VICTOR DWYER April 14 1997

Who should pay for ESL?


The backlash over teaching immigrants English


Nestled in a working-class neighbor-hood in Vancouver's east end, the tidy, two-storey schoolhouse looks like a relic from a simpler era. But in-

side the second-floor classroom of teacher Steve Dunbar, it is clear that Lord Beaconsfield Elementary is working hard to keep up with the multicultural 1990s. A bulletin board festooned with red firecrackers and yellowand-blue lanterns features a display on the Chinese New Year. Seated in front of it are 14 students, all learning English as a second language, quietly testing each other’s spelling. At the front of the classroom, Dunbar patiently reads a simple textbook with three other students—who know next to no English at all. In a city that absorbed 45,000 new immi-

grants last year, the vast majority from Asia, Dunbar’s classroom is far from unique. Throughout Vancouver, a staggering 57 per cent of schoolchildren speak a language other than English at home. “When the majority of your students have English as a second language, it changes the fundamental nature of the school system,” says Hugh Hooper, district principal for ESL with the Vancouver School Board.

‘We are challenged at every level.”

As immigration transforms the face of British Columbia, the vast waves of new Canadians are putting intense pressure on public education. And at a time when many schools face cutbacks, there is growing anger and resentment that English-speaking children are suffering as ESL programs demand a growing piece of a shrinking pie—sentiments that many others fear mask a creeping racism. Meanwhile, the escalating cost of ESL programs is provoking a war of words between federal politicians—who control immigration— and those who want Ottawa to cough up a larger portion of the

cost of teaching English to newcomers. “This is a huge issue,” says Carole James, president of the B.C. School Trustees’ Association. “Virtually every school is feeling the pressure, and I worry there is a major backlash brewing.”

The numbers alone tell a dramatic story. With barely 13 per cent of the Canadian population, British Columbia absorbed 23 per cent of newcomers to Canada last year— 80 per cent of those from Asia. More than 4,000 new ESL students flooded into B.C. schools—an increase of almost seven per cent over 1995. Over the past decade, that figure has soared a remarkable 334 per cent.

And it is not only inner-city schools that are being transformed. While the proportion of children enrolled in ESL programs in Vancouver approached 50 per cent last fall, other

nearby districts are quickly playing catch-up. Enrolment in Richmond jumped from 228 students in 1987 to more than 10,000 last year and now hovers at roughly 40 per cent. Outside of British Columbia, only Toronto schools come close to matching those figures. There, such students account for just under one-quarter of all schoolchildren, a figure that has held steady since 1990, and actually dipped slightly last fall.

But while the numbers in Ontario are significant, the sharp, steady increases in British Columbia are quickly transforming the issue of ESL into a lightning rod for frustrated parents and teachers. In late February, temperatures rose a notch when Education Minister Paul Ramsey unveiled what many critics describe as a cash grab from English-speaking students. In a one-two punch, Ramsey cut general school board budgets for the coming year by $27 million—only to beef up ESL spending by roughly $1 million. “Making sure immigrants become well integrated into B.C. life depends on ensuring that children are well integrated into schools,” says Ramsey. “Placing a priority on ESL is entire ly appropriate.”

While few question the need to fund ESL programs, many are furious that doing so may shortchange other kids. Late last month, the parent advisory committee at Coyote Creek Elementary School in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey upped the ante. In a formal resolution, it demanded that the B.C. Parent Council petition Ramsey to re quire that all children be able to speak either

English or French before being enrolled in school. “Parents all grumble there is not enough money for the basics,” says committee volunteer Tanya Rowlands, who notes that Coyote Creek parents conducted dances and a casino last year to raise $47,000 for such things as library books and computers. “It’s just not right there is all this extra money for ESL.”

Still, even if the provincial council agrees to petition the minister, it is highly unlikely he will give them a warm reception. “I find the argument that immigrants should pay for ESL a strange one,” says Ramsey. “For years, this province has provided English training for new immigrants, whether from Germany or Ukraine or Italy. Surely the same applies to immigrants from Asia—a population that is visible in a way European ones were not.” But Rowlands remains determined—and defiant in the face of any insinuation that the motives of the committee are suspect. “I’m tired of this being called a racial issue,” says Rowlands. “It’s a financial issue.”

However divided, those on all sides agree on one thing: Ottawa should begin to take greater responsibility for the high cost of teaching ESL. “We have these children longer than any other institution—they are with us six hours a day,” notes Vancouver principal Hooper. “But while the federal government funds all sorts of programs to support settlement, youth, by and large, are left out of the picture.”

Many saw a glimmer of hope last month when federal minister for immigration and


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citizenship, Lucienne Robillard, announced $63 million in new money to aid immigrant settlement over the next three years—the lion’s share earmarked for British Columbia and Ontario. But it now appears almost certain that such hopes will be dashed. The new money, insists Robillard, may be directed to such programs as employment retraining and adult education—but not public schools. ‘We realize the impact of immigration on the school system,” Robillard told Maclean’s. “But education is a provincial responsibility—and so is the teaching of ESL. This is

the case now, and will be in the future.” Faced with that reality, Ramsey will likely have little choice but to continue shifting money into ESL programs—or sit by while individual school districts do it themselves. Last year, the Vancouver board quietly siphoned $3.5 million out of general spending and into ESL programs. One reason: the province’s $955-per-student ESL stipend covered only the cost of language assessment and in-class instruction. But like many urban boards in British Columbia and elsewhere, Vancouver has begun to invest in a range of related programs, including one in which 22 staff try to build stronger links between immigrant parents and teachers. “ESL is much more than teaching English,” says teacher Dunbar. “You’re dealing with kids whose families have been totally uprooted.”

In Ontario, where high rates of immigration have long been a fact of life, many parents fear it is just such programs that will come under the knife. The government of Premier Mike Harris has said it would like to centralize education spending—taking it out of the hands of local municipalities. And there have been persistent rumors that Education Minister John Snobelen may slice up to $ 1.5 billion from the $ 14-billion system over the next year.

The combined result, many predict, will be reduced funding for ESL programs in such cities as Toronto and Ottawa. Trustees in those boards have traditionally tapped into a hefty local tax base to meet the special needs of new Canadians, as well as disabled children and those from poorer families. That scenario frightens parents like Annie Kidder, whose daughters Kate and Molly attend Palmerston Avenue Public School in downtown Toronto. “Underfunding ESL is the last thing you want to do,” says Kidder. “Children who need help learning English are a fact of life. When the money isn’t there to educate them properly, those kids suffer, my kids suffer, and the entire school suffers.”

And, say many observers, society suffers as well. “If we don’t provide support to these children, the expense will come up in other places,” says Hooper. “They can end up dropping out, and it can cost lots of money through social services to provide support for them.” No matter how contentious the issue—or intense the emotions it evokes— many agree it is time to stop pointing fingers. “Canadians have to sit down and solve this problem together,” says Donna Cansfield, executive director of the Canadian School Boards’ Association. “It’s not a federal problem, it’s not a provincial problem, it’s not a municipal problem. It’s everybody’s problem.” And one whose solution is long overdue.



in Vancouver