Arizona legislators have approved a $40.6 million funding boost to help an estimated 138,000 students learn the English language, a step that could allow the state to avoid costly fines threatened by a federal judge.
The Senate's 16-14 vote Thursday came a day after the House approved the same funding increase. Both votes were bipartisan, with a few Democrats joining most Republicans in voting for the Republican-drafted bill (SB1096).
It was sent immediately to Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano. Spokeswoman Shilo Mitchell said Napolitano needed time to review the bill and would not act on it Thursday.
Supporters said the additional funding for English Language Learning programs should satisfy court orders and avoid the threatened fines, while critics of the 2006 law said it imposes burdensome mandates and costs that far exceed the money provided.
Sen. Jorge Garcia, D-Tucson, voted for the bill, saying it was needed "to move forward in trying to achieve a solution" even though some large districts with many ELL students wouldn't get any additional funding. "It's contrary to logic," Garcia said.
Some senators complained that state taxpayers shouldn't have to shoulder ELL costs for students who are illegal immigrants or children of illegal immigrants.
"The federal government created this problem by not securing the borders," said Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu City Republican who voted against the bill.
The money will go to school districts and charter schools to cover costs of implementing new state requirements for English Language Learning programs. Most districts will get much less money than they said they need, though state officials said they scrubbed the districts' requests to delete unnecessary spending.
U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins on March 11 set a Tuesday deadline for the state to provide funding for implementing a 2006 state law that revamps the programs. Violation would subject the state to daily fines of $2 million initially and $5 million after 30 days.
"Every no' vote is actually saying that $2 million will be wasted, will be collected and sent to the federal government," said one bill supporter, Republican Sen. Barbara Leff of Paradise Valley, during the Senate vote.
A lawyer for class-action plaintiffs whose 1992 lawsuit produced the court orders said enactment of the bill would prompt him to ask Collins to rule that the $40.6 million increase isn't big enough and to block implementation of new state requirements.
The 2006 law, which Napolitano let take effect without her signature, was enacted to try to resolve the 1992 class-action lawsuit. The lawsuit led to court rulings that Arizona's ELL programs and their funding didn't meet federal mandates for equal opportunities in education.
Requirements put in place to implement the law include a mandate that districts and charters at least initially adopt new instructional models set by the state. Under the models, ELL students must be taught English in daily four-hour immersion periods.
While the House on Wednesday passed the bill with several votes to spare, two Democrats joined 14 Republicans in providing the bare number of votes needed for Senate passage.
The $40.6 million would be equivalent to a 70 percent to 80 percent increase in the state's current supplemental ELL funding provided to districts and charter schools on a per-student basis. That's above the larger amount provided for all students.
However, the additional $40.6 million would be allotted in lump sums to districts and charters across the state under formulas and deductions that would give some no additional money and others amounts exceeding $1 million.
"This is inherently an unfair bill that takes my schools and does not give them any money from the state but requires their taxpayers to pay money for their programs," said Sen. Ken Cheuvront, D-Phoenix.