School officials question English-learner cost guess
Arizona Republic
March 17, 2008


Betty Reid

Several Phoenix school officials are aghast at the state education chief's estimate of the cost of teaching students to learn English.

Next school year, Arizona schools are required to add four-hour English lessons daily to help students learn English faster. An estimated 140,000 students need English instruction statewide.

Many Phoenix districts have large populations of English-language learners and last week found themselves thrown into the highly politicized debate by criticizing estimates by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.

Recently, Horne told Arizona lawmakers it would take $40 million to properly fund the language programs at the schools. Horne issued his estimates a week before a district court judge gave the state Legislature until April 15 to properly pay for ELL programs or face fines of $2 million a day.

Horne places that cost at a fraction of the amount put together by the Arizona School Administrators at $304 million. Horne explained he arrived at the $40 million after he weeded out extra costs and deleted textbooks and classroom-space expenses because they are not allowed under the formula created to guide spending on ELL instruction.

Much of the $40 million covers the hiring of 1,500 extra teachers, he said.

Chris Thomas, president of the Madison School District governing school board, is among those frustrated by Horne's estimates.

"I don't think anybody with any credibility believes that the $40 million figure is right," Thomas said.

Madison School District has identified 657 students as English learners. The district estimates its ELL program will cost $2 million, which would include staff additions.

Those costs were arrived at as a result of the Arizona English Language Learner Task Force, which created a curriculum called English Language Development models. The task force asked each district to submit a budget to the state about the cost of using the models. Several districts retooled their expenses to align their cost with the state models.

The president of the Arizona School Boards Association also decried Horne's cost estimate.

Suzanne Schweiger-Nitchals, also a member of the Creighton Elementary School District governing board, said schools will begin to siphon off other programs to fund the models at $40 million, adding schools budgets are shrinking.

Republic reporter Mary Jo Pitzl contributed to this article.