Language funding becomes law without signature
Arizona Republic
April 15, 2008


Governor declines to sign English-learner bill

Mary Jo Pitzl

Gov. Janet Napolitano let a bill that allocates an additional $40 million for English instruction become law without her signature Monday, expressing concern that the state still has unfinished business on the matter.

The action on the eve of a court deadline should avert the $2 million-a-day fines U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins threatened to impose. He gave the state until today to present an adequate funding plan.

But the governor said the $40 million and the way it is allocated are "far from a perfect solution" to the problems posed by the state's long-standing debate over how to educate students struggling to learn English.
In a letter explaining her action, the governor noted the state is still under court order to remove two provisions from the English-learner program. She urged lawmakers to revise portions of the state law that require the schools to limit English-intensive instruction to two years, and to remove a provision that allows the state to count federal dollars toward their instruction costs.

She echoed the complaints of school administrators who say the immersion program may deprive English-learner students of adequate time in math and English classes. And she said the program needs more than the $40 million the bill allocates.

"Appropriation of the approximately $40 million of funds is only a first step to providing Arizona's children with a chance to read, write and speak English," she wrote.

Last month, educators said it would take $300 million to adequately pay for the four-hour immersion requirement in the state law that takes effect this fall.

Currently, the state provides $375 for each student classified as an English-language learner. House Majority Leader Tom Boone said he was pleased that the governor is allowing the measure to become law.

He said the Legislature's action with Senate Bill 1096 simply addresses the federal judge's requirement that the state provide funding for English instruction.

"It's one step at a time," said Boone, R-Peoria.

The other issues raised by the governor are still being appealed, and lawmakers don't want to change the law until that process has played out, Boone said.

Besides, the funding plan doesn't count federal education dollars against a school district's allotment, Boone said.

Tim Hogan, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, said it makes little difference to him if the $40 million goes into law without the governor's signature: The state's solution is deeply flawed.

"We're ready to go back to court," he said. "This shows the inadequacy of the funding, particularly since there are bunches of schools which get no money."

Under the legislative plan, some school districts with large English-learner populations get no money for the required four hours of English-intensive education that schools must provide beginning this fall. That's because the state plan discounted money that those schools are already spending on English learners. Other districts, with smaller populations of English-challenged students, get more money because they have not diverted funds to specific English-instruction efforts.

There are an estimated 138,000 Arizona school children classified as deficient in English.

Hogan represents the original plaintiff in the Flores v. Arizona case, as well as parents in the Nogales school district.

He said he'll ask Judge Collins to "fully fund" the English-learner programs and, until such time, block the requirement that school districts use the model programs created by a state task force. That would eliminate the four-hour immersion requirement.

Hogan said he expects to return to federal court on the matter some time next week.

Meanwhile, legislative leaders welcomed the governor's move.

House Speaker Pro Tem Bob Robson, R-Chandler, said the governor was wise to let the bill become law. Her action shows she recognized the will of the House and the Senate to direct $40 million into the program, even though she may have her own misgivings about the state's approach, he said.

Lawmakers last week approved the funding plan, largely with Republican support. Some Democrats also voted for the plan, saying it was important to move forward with some level of funding, even if they believe it's not enough.

The governor's decision to not sign the bill is the same move she made two years ago when lawmakers crafted their plan to set up a structured English-immersion program. She let that bill become law without her signature, a way of expressing disappointment with the approach but without bringing on financial penalties.