Senate to vote today on $40 million for language instruction; allocation system faces fight
The state House of Representatives voted Wednesday to spend $40 million next year to boost English-language instruction for non-native speakers, even though school districts with the most English-language learners would get little or none of the money.
In a protracted and contentious debate, with the clock ticking toward a court-imposed Tuesday deadline, the House voted 37-23 to direct the additional money into special programs for children who lack skills in English. A vote is expected today in the state Senate.
The vote shaped up along partisan lines. Majority Republicans said the plan meets the terms of a law they passed two years ago. It should satisfy the judge who has overseen the long-running Flores vs. Arizona case, said House Majority Leader Tom Boone, R-Peoria.
Democrats objected, saying the $40 million was inadequate and its application upside down: The school districts with the most English-language learners would get little or no money, while districts with fewer such students would get tens of thousands of dollars.
"The distribution goes to those school districts that don't need the money," said Rep. Pete Rios, D-Hayden. Meanwhile, the Cartwright Elementary School District in Phoenix, which has 9,000 students in its English-learner programs, would get nothing, he said.
In contrast, the Peoria Unified School District in the northwest Valley would get $3.3 million.
The state Department of Education determined the allocation of the $40 million after reviewing applications from the state's school districts. Those districts already spending money on English-learner programs had that amount credited against them, reducing their claim on the $40 million.
The money's distribution will likely be the next legal issue brought before U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins, who presides over the Flores case.
Attorney Tim Hogan, who represents school districts in the 16-year-old case, said the $40 million falls far short of the state's needs and called its distribution "a screwy, backwards deal."
"It's going to be very obvious to the judge," Hogan said.
Wednesday's vote on Senate Bill 1096 was intended to meet Collins' April 15 deadline for the state to show a funding plan for English-language instruction.
Beginning this fall, state law mandates that school districts must provide four hours of intensive English instruction to the estimated 138,000 students struggling to learn the language. School officials have said that they need money to pay for extra teachers, textbooks and more classroom space, among other things, to meet the mandate.
A formula created by a legislative task force determined the funding distribution, which has been sharply criticized by school officials. They claim Arizona schools need a collective $300 million - nearly eight times what lawmakers are allocating - to meet English-instruction mandates.
Wednesday's House debate dragged on for nearly two hours, with Democrats condemning the $40 million and Republicans saying the spending plan was carefully drawn to meet Collins' court order.
Failure to meet Tuesday's deadline would trigger daily fines of $2 million, climbing to $5 million daily after a month.
The bill passed on the strength of Republican votes. Democrats refrained from voting, trying to force the hand of GOP members, many of whom have resisted court mandates in the instruction battle.
Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, was the only Republican to vote against the plan. He has consistently objected to the court's mandates, saying they violate the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government.
"The judge has zero authority to appropriate money," Farnsworth said, saying that is lawmakers' role.
But supporters of the plan say the judge technically has not required increased spending, just "adequate" funding to meet the terms of a federal equal-opportunity education law. Rep. David Schapira, D-Tempe, was the only Democrat to vote for the funding plan.
"I'd rather have something than nothing," he said.
After it was clear the measure would pass, four Democrats switched their "no" votes to "yes."
Rep. Jackie Thrasher, D-Glendale, was one of them. A schoolteacher herself, Thrasher said she switched her vote because she saw the $40 million as a "beginning" toward needed funding for English instruction.
The other Democrats were representatives Ed Ableser of Tempe, and Cloves Campbell and Mark DeSimone of Phoenix.
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