Ante up for English
Arizona Republic
Feb. 6, 2005
An order to teach the language is 5 years old, so stop whining and fund it

Jargon can get in the way, so let's start by saying that this is about children. Approximately 200,000 of them in Arizona.

These kids are - here comes the jargon - English Language Learners.

This is also about money.

It costs more to educate these kids because they have to be taught English before they can learn anything else in our schools. How much more is the big question.

Five years ago a federal judge said Arizona's funding for these kids was "arbitrary and capricious." And inadequate. He set deadlines for the state to fix things.

Nearly a year after that, Arizona lawmakers arbitrarily and capriciously doubled the extra funding schools get for each of these kids and ordered a study to determine the true cost.

Five years later, the Legislature is still waiting on the study and the court has imposed another deadline, the end of the 2005 session. If lawmakers miss it, Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest will ask the judge to punish the state by cutting off more than $400 million in federal highway funding.

Hogan says the state has had plenty of time.

And he's right.

Lawmakers say, hey, wait, we need the cost study first.

They are right, too, although the argument is a little too convenient. The contract for a cost study was awarded July 30, 2002. Two-and-a-half years after the court ruling. The deadline was set for August 2004. Two more years.

The study is supposed to take state and federal laws into consideration and determine the cost of an acceptable English learning program.

In 2000, Arizona voters banned most bilingual programs and approved using sheltered English immersion, so that's the program researchers should be reviewing. The feds require states to ensure equal educational opportunity for children who don't speak English.

Arizona got an executive summary of the study in August. It offered a wide cost range of about $700 to $2,500 in additional funding per pupil. Arizona now spends $354 extra on each of these kids. When the draft of the full report arrived, it was sent back for revisions.

It is due back Feb. 15.

If it is again unacceptable, lawmakers should refuse to pay the balance due - about $200,000 - and use the money for a new, quicker study. Otherwise, the study should be made public and become part of a vigorous effort to meet the judge's deadline.

It is past time for lawmakers to shoulder their responsibility and acknowledge the valuable human resource these children represent. Today's English-learner students are tomorrow's workforce.

If Arizona doesn't adequately educate them, it will lose the economic and social edge a large, well-trained employee base provides to lure - or keep - businesses.

If Arizona fails to keep these children in school and help them get the skills necessary to succeed, the state will pay later in public assistance and possibly prison costs.

The state has known for five years that it would likely need a pot of money for these kids, so whining about the cost is unconvincing.

This is not about what lawmakers think they can't afford. This is about what is necessary for children, their education and Arizona's future.