Margin slim; as Tuesday deadline looms, ball is in Napolitano's court
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/233887
PHOENIX — By the narrowest of margins, the state Senate approved spending an additional $40.6 million this coming school year to provide English-language instruction.
All that's left now is for the governor to approve.
Thursday's 16-14 vote came over objections from Democrats who said the funding is insufficient and the method of dividing the cash is unfair.
Some Republicans had their own problems with being ordered to come up with the money by a federal judge. And many of those who supported the measure were similarly unhappy.
But they concluded that, as flawed as the plan may be, it is preferable to missing U.S. District Judge Raner Collins' Tuesday deadline to approve funding or face fines starting at $2 million a day. Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler, said that could eat up the $40 million at issue in less than three weeks.
The measure, approved by the House a day earlier, is now on the desk of Gov. Janet Napolitano.
She essentially has to decide by Tuesday whether to veto it, sign it, or let it become law without her signature to avoid the fines. Her aides late Thursday were mum about her plans.
Napolitano never liked the 2006 law that led to Tuesday's vote.
That law directed the state Department of Education to come up with the best "models" of how best to teach English to students who come to school speaking another language, and then have individual districts seek additional funds to teach using those models.
Napolitano allowed the 2006 bill to become law without her signature, saying at the time she presumed Collins would reject it as legally inadequate to comply with a 2000 federal court order to provide adequate funding for English learners.
She was half right. Collins ruled a provision limiting additional instructional funding to two years for each student is illegal and rejected letting the state reduce any school's additional state aid by the amount it received in federal funds.
But the judge ultimately concluded the teaching models are an acceptable way for the state to meet its requirement under federal law to ensure all students have equal education opportunities. And Collins said the state will finally be in compliance with a 2000 court order if it adequately funds those models.
Whether the funding provided by this legislation meets that condition remains in dispute. Attorney Tim Hogan, who represents the plaintiffs who brought the original lawsuit, said he will ask Collins to rule the $40.6 million isn't enough to provide the English language instruction federal law requires, even on top of the nearly $50 million in extra funds that now go to districts for English learners.
Senate Minority Leader Marsha Arzberger, D-Willcox, who voted for the measure, called the legislation a "pretty miserable attempt" to fund English-learner programs, although the alternative of $2 million in daily fines is worse.
Some Republicans balked at being forced to comply with a federal court order.
"The federal government created this problem by not securing the borders," complained Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City.
Sen. Jack Harper, R-Surprise, voted for the measure. But he wanted to go on record as saying the money should be spent only to educate U.S. citizens.
But Sen. Jorge Garcia, D-Tucson, who voted for the measure, pointed out that federal law requires states to educate all within their borders and precludes schools from inquiring about the legal status of children.
Sen. Ken Cheuvront, D-Phoenix, voted against it, complaining the distribution formula makes no sense.
For example Mesa Unified School District would be entitled to $1.8 million for its 9,308 students classified as English learners, or $205 each. Meanwhile, the Vail Unified School District would get $531,239 for its 137 students, or $3,878 apiece.
And some districts will get nothing.
Tucson Unified School District asked for $43.1 million. State school superintendent Tom Horne said the district was entitled to only $6.5 million, but then deducted what the district already gets from the state and other sources, leaving a zero balance.
Horne said the reason for the disparity is districts with many English learners already have plenty of teachers and don't need funding for new ones. Districts with just a few affected students may need to hire additional staff for the immersion classes.
funding by local district
District Approved ELL students Per student
Amphi $59,141 1,521 $39
Catalina Foothills $162,273 93 $1,745
Flowing Wells $517,674 543 $953
Marana $1,031,382 455 $2,267
Sahuarita $97,592 230 $424
Tanque Verde $19,290 0 NA
Tucson $0 7,669 $0
Vail $531,239 137 $3,878
*additional funding above $365-per-student base
Source: Arizona Department of Education