Schools chief puts cost of ELL programs at $40 million
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 4, 2008


Mary Jo Pitzl

It will cost $40.6 million a year to provide schools with the money needed to teach English to non-native speakers, the state schools chief says - a figure that's a fraction of what the schools say they need.

The request by Tom Horne, the state superintendent of public instruction, opens a new chapter in the long-running battle over how to fund English-language learner programs.

Horne says the $40.6 million should cover the cost for 1,500 extra teachers to meet a state law that, beginning this fall, requires four hours a day of English-language instruction for students who are having trouble learning the language.

The figure could drop to $19.3 million if the state would be allowed to count federal anti-poverty dollars against the amount.

His figures arrived a day before a court-ordered deadline for the Legislature to appropriate adequate money to pay for English instruction. Lawmakers are seeking an extension to April 18.

School officials and the attorney representing school districts in a long-running legal dispute over the issue say Horne's figures are flawed and don't begin to cover the extra costs of the new program.

In late January, the Arizona School Administrators estimated the costs at $304 million, a figure they stuck by on Monday.

Tim Hogan, the attorney representing school districts in the legal battle, said Horne's figure is "nowhere near" what it will take to pay for the extra costs of English-instruction programs.

But Horne said his department had to weed out inflated costs and dismiss schools' claims for extra money for more textbooks or classroom space, since those items are not permitted under the formula created to guide extra spending on language instruction.

"We had examples of districts that asked for 90 teachers without explanation," he said. "We decided they needed 15."

He also dismissed requests for salaries for summer-camp staff and, in one case, a karaoke machine.

"Those are exception rather than the rule," he said.

Horne said that many school districts feel shortchanged in their overall state support, and tried to build in extra funding through their language requests. But state law doesn't allow that, he said.

"It's a matter of perspectives," he said. "If you're the principal or the superintendent, you're going to ask for everything you can think of."

Not so, said Greg Wyman, president of the administrators' group and superintendent of the Apache Junction Unified School District.

It's going to cost more than just extra teacher salaries to provide four hours a day of English instruction, Wyman said. That's why many school districts included costs for additional textbooks, since a four-hour program five days a week will require more materials than a one-hour program.

Also, some school districts will need extra space to provide a separate classroom for teaching four hours a day of English only, he said.

Horne's request moves the action to the state Legislature. House Majority Leader Tom Boone said it's hard to predict how much money lawmakers will set aside for the program, although he said he personally believes they should fund the amount that was produced by Horne's models.

Boone, a Peoria Republican who also serves on the Deer Valley Unified School District board, backs the $19 million figure, since it is consistent with the funding formula that lawmakers believe complies with federal equal-education law.

But U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins disagreed, and last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Collins' ruling that Arizona's funding plan is inadequate.

Horne said lawmakers need to find a way to fund the English programs, despite an estimated $1.7 billion gap in next year's budget.

Meanwhile, Collins is expected to hold a hearing next week on the deadline extension requested by Senate President Tim Bee and House Speaker Jim Weiers. Hogan said he has yet to reply to their request, but repeated his belief that April 18 is too late and would settle for March 18 at the latest.