The Utah Legislature is considering defunding Utah’s world-renowned Dual Language Immersion, or DLI, program, which is currently training nearly 50,000 K-12 students in bilingual fluency, preparing them for the global workforce.

These students are learning Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, French, German and Russian. In December, the Executive Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to accept the Public Education Subcommittee’s recommendation to remove DLI and eight other categorical programs from its base budget. The subcommittee proposed to keep these funds for further study during the current general session of the Legislature. The subcommittee will determine whether to continue the program, consolidate with a similar program or reallocate funding.

It is proposed to take the $7,367,000 annual direct allocation educating 50,000 DLI students in 330 schools. The money would be distributed through the general funding formula to 675,000 students in all K-12 public schools. According to the Utah State Board of Education, this would reduce the $152 per DLI student to just $11 for all students. This funding shift would clearly decimate the DLI program as we know it. In a $7.7 billion public education budget, DLI amounts to a small fraction of 1% of spending — and the returns on this small investment are significant.  

Proponents of the change argue the Legislature should not determine how education funds are spent, that these decisions are better made at the local level. What they fail to recognize is that all DLI funding is spent by local school districts and charter schools — none is spent at the state level. What’s more, every Utah public school can choose at the local level to become a DLI school and choose which language is taught. Under the Utah model, DLI funding supports DLI directors and coordinators as language specialists in school districts who work across school district boundaries to support schools in each of the six languages, which keeps program spending small. 

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For example, Canyons School District Spanish Language Director Ofelia Wade spends one day a week supporting all Canyons Spanish DLI schools and the remainder of the week supporting Spanish DLI schools — including charter schools — across the state, teacher recruiting and training, and she ensures high quality instruction within the Spanish DLI programs. Similarly, Alpine School District Chinese Language Director Stacy Lyon divides her time serving Alpine Chinese DLI schools and Chinese DLI programs across the state at other districts. Utah’s unique collaboration among schools ensures DLI funding achieves economies of scale, prevents duplication of effort and ensures savings to taxpayers.

Another efficiency of Utah’s DLI Elementary Model stems from its 50:50 design, where the instructional day in grades K-6 is divided between two high-quality classrooms, each for 50% of the instructional time. Students spend half of their school day in the immersion language, which includes math and science instruction. They spend the other half-day studying English language arts and social studies while reinforcing vocabulary in both languages. All state-sponsored programs are required to use two teachers, one who instructs exclusively in the immersion language for half of the day and a second teacher who teaches exclusively in English the other half of the day. Utah’s 50:50 model enables each language instructor to reach twice as many students as other models. 

DLI students in secondary schools take the World Language Advanced Placement or NEWELL test in ninth or 10th grade. This allows them to enroll in the Bridge Program taking upper division college language courses from Utah’s best college language programs — at their own high school. Bridge students can graduate high school just a few credits short of a college minor in the language, enabling them to do a double major in college. Moreover, the employability and lifetime earnings of these bilingual graduates are significantly enhanced.

Utah’s DLI program is undisputedly the most successful and least costly K-12 language program in the nation and the envy of other states. It has been recognized for the program standards and practices that ensure measurable student language fluency. Utah DLI is noted for its quality curricula and highly qualified domestic and international teachers who all receive ongoing professional learning and mentoring. 

Because of its exemplary quality, Utah’s DLI program has been visited by representatives of 42 states and over 22 foreign countries. Many U.S. embassies in foreign countries which process visas for international DLI teachers have recognized it as the finest program in the country.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages awarded Utah DLI schools and language leaders the Melba D. Woodruff Award for Exemplary Elementary World Language Program and the Leo Bernardo Award for Innovation in K-12 Language Education.

In their One Nation Indivisible series, Harvard Law featured Wasatch School District’s universal Spanish DLI, which they said connected the diversity between white Latter-day Saint families and Hispanic Catholic families in positive community relationships. 

Asia Society posted a piece explaining the elements that make Utah’s DLI program exceptional. 

But the most important reason for continuing DLI funding is what it does for students. Utah’s Dual Language Immersion program has been shown to raise student achievement in English Language Arts and other academic subjects. Research shows that DLI has positive effects on brain function — notably improved executive functioning from advanced maturing of the prefrontal cortex. This helps students to focus their attention with less effort and makes it easier to multitask plus problem-solve.

Additionally, Utah DLI students and their families expand their horizons while learning language and culture. As the global economy grows, those with language skills developed in Utah’s schools can be employed in international business, diplomacy and defense in order to ensure the future peace and prosperity of our country.

Representatives of Utah’s 41 local school boards, superintendents and business administrators in the Joint Legislative Committee have urged the legislature to keep Dual Language Immersion intact. The Utah State School Board voted unanimously in favor of keeping DLI as it is and opposed defunding. I am hopeful the Utah Legislature will see the wisdom of protecting this unique program that sets Utah apart in so many ways. 

Former Utah state Sen. Howard Stephenson was the original sponsor of Utah’s Dual Language Immersion legislation.