Naco school chief decries money allocated for English learners
Associated Press
April 20, 2008


Not enough to do the job, says superintendent

By Paul Davenport - Associated Press Writer

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

A $40.6 million funding boost to help schools educate students who are learning English isn't adding up for Patricia Marsh, a school superintendent in Southern Arizona.

The legislation approved this month means Marsh will get more money. But she says it's not enough to carry out the state mandates that go with the funding, particularly a requirement that so-called English Language Learners should be separated from other students for daily four-hour immersion periods.

After offsets built into the law, the Naco Elementary School District would get $26,894, an amount that won't cover the $43,000 salary of one new teacher, not counting benefits, and Marsh said she needs two new teachers.

"I can't make the program work with $26,000. That's the bottom line," said Marsh, superintendent and principal for the 280-student district in Cochise County. "If the state has such a budget crunch, why did they make this mandate that they can't fund?"

The state revamped its requirements for English Language Learning programs as a result of a 2006 law enacted to resolve a lengthy legal dispute over the adequacy of Arizona ELL programs and their funding.

The legal battle continues but, faced with an April 15 deadline and threatened fines, the Legislature approved the $40.6 million boost for programs provided by school districts and charter schools for the 138,000 ELL students in Arizona.

The amount created new disputes.

The schools say they need additional teachers to implement the mandates, and some administrators agree with Marsh that it can't be done with the approved funding.

The school districts and charters had submitted requests totaling $274 million.

Some districts and charters got their entire requests. Some got nothing, often due to the "offsets" deductions for certain other funding sources already available to the districts. Most are in the middle, getting some but not all the money they requested.

That leaves school officials scratching their heads as they start deciding what they can and can't do with their allotments.

Balsz Elementary in east Phoenix calculated that it needs 27 additional teachers to handle the new immersion periods. Nearly half of the district's 3,000 students are categorized as English Language Learners. Most are Hispanic but many aren't. Some 280, for example, have Somali origins.

State officials calculated that Balsz's five schools only need 15 additional teachers to cover their classrooms. But the funds for most of those additional teachers were effectively erased because of offsets for state money that the district already gets for ELL programs.

That means Balsz would get enough money for only about six additional teachers.

"These kids are going to be losing out if you use the offsets," said Mary Beth Whitney, Balsz's curriculum director and a former kindergarten teacher.

Whitney said her district might deploy additional teachers in certain grades with the greatest needs, while accepting that it won't have enough additional teachers to limit ELL class sizes to the state's targets.

Said Whitney: "To implement their model with larger class sizes, yes, I have enough money."

The district's allotment of additional state money included $34,000 for ELL instructional material, such as math glossaries. Whitney said she'll try to tap other funding sources for that purpose so the state money can be targeted at adding teachers.

School officials elsewhere are also trying to figure how they'll stretch the money to meet the state's mandates.

In Tonopah, a desert community in western Maricopa County, the Saddle Mountain Unified District's superintendent wonders how and where to deploy the one additional teacher his district will get. The district requested money for two.

The problem, said interim Superintendent Jim Kieffer, is that two different schools 15 miles apart with relatively small numbers of ELL students at each each need another ELL teacher.

Kieffer said it would separate ELL students from their siblings and community ties if they're concentrated at one school.

"What I don't really want to do is segregate the children," Kieffer said. "That's the last thing I'm interested in doing."

State officials defend the 2006 law, the implementation requirements drawn up by an appointed task force and Department of Education calculations that led to the $40.6 million appropriation.

The money represents the difference between the costs of educating ELL students and non-ELL students, above ELL funding that the state already provides, said House Majority Leader Tom Boone, a Peoria Republican who helped write the law.

"It was developed very objectively," Boone said. "Is there a difference of opinion? Of course there is, but the process is very objective."