English-learner plan unveiled
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 18, 2005
Governor would spend $185 mil more on schools

Robbie Sherwood and Chip Scutari

Gov. Janet Napolitano offered a plan Friday to satisfy a federal court order by spending $185 million a year more on Arizona's growing number of students who struggle to learn English.

The program would start with $13.5 million this school year but would grow to $185 million by 2009, or roughly $1,300 more for every student classified as an English-language learner.

Administrators in school districts with large immigrant populations have said they need the extra money to shrink the size of classes, update materials and equipment, provide more individual instruction, and better train teachers.

More than 160,000 students in Arizona speak foreign languages, mostly Spanish, and are struggling to learn English. The situation is believed to be a main reason for Arizona's high dropout rate, as well as the inability of many of the children to adjust to life in Arizona.

"This is not an option for us, we're under a court order to fix this," said Becky Hill, Napolitano's education adviser. "We can't just throw away 20 percent of our student population. To ignore this is not smart business. This is about the long-term future of Arizona."

Napolitano faces an uphill struggle getting her plan through a Republican-controlled Legislature, whose less-expensive plan she vetoed last month.

The Legislature's strategy would have provided a similar amount in the first year. But it would have then become a grant program where schools could apply to the Department of Education for extra funding. The grants would not be guaranteed.

Napolitano hopes to call a legislative special session later this summer to gain approval for the plan. The money would start increasing during the 2006 school year, and the final cost will depend on how many English-learner students are in Arizona schools when the new programs go into effect.

The spending increase would come from the state's General Fund. Currently, Arizona spends about $355 on children who have to overcome language barriers.

Napolitano's plan comes one month after she vetoed a Republican-backed bill on English-instruction funding, angering GOP leaders who said she was trying to play "governor and judge." In her veto message, Napolitano said the Republican plan would shortchange Arizona children.

On Friday, Republicans quickly questioned the governor's proposal. House Speaker Jim Weiers wondered why the state should spend so much to educate non-English-speaking kids, many of whom he said are in the state illegally or have parents who are undocumented immigrants.

"Under the governor's program, this becomes Mexico's best school district north of the border," said Weiers, R-Phoenix. "There's more in this proposal than the entire funding for the Department of Public Safety. How ironic."

Weiers said the Legislature's plan was superior, not just less expensive, because it required schools to justify how much money they would need to tackle their English-learner problems. It also mandated that new money would be spent on English-immersion programs, not on bilingual instruction, a method that districts must obtain waivers to use after voters rejected it in 2000.

But Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest said he supports Napolitano's proposal. Hogan, an attorney who successfully sued the state, said the legislative plan fell far short of complying with the federal court order because there was no guarantee that English-learner programs would be adequately funded in the future.

Hogan called Weiers' comments about immigrant children "ignorant."

"Three-fourths of the (English-learner) kids are United States citizens, if that's what he's referring to," Hogan said. "And, moreover, those kids, just like everybody else, have constitutional rights, and one is to participate to the same extent as everybody else in public school. Repeated Supreme Court decisions say that's the law. If he wants to keep looking for excuses to violate the law, that's up to him."

Earlier this year, Hogan threatened to ask a federal judge to strip the state of its federal highway funding. That could cost the state more than $400 million. So far, Hogan has not gone back to court to ask for that sanction.

The issue of English-language learners grew out of a lawsuit, Flores vs. Arizona, filed by a Nogales family in 1992. Legislators have been under the gun from a federal court order to spend more money on English-language learners in Arizona. The Republican plan would have spent $42 million overall for English-instruction programs and teacher training.

Napolitano aides said her bill would tackle existing deficiencies and is designed to comply with the federal court order. Besides the added funding, here are some of the key elements of Napolitano's plan:

 The money would be put into a special, segregated fund that could be used only for English-language learners.

 There would be annual audits of how every dime was being spent and would require schools to report their academic progress for those students.

 The auditor general, who is a legislative watchdog, would develop a format for districts to detail how and why they were using the money.

Weiers argued that Napolitano's plan lacks the accountability of the Legislature's proposal because it doesn't require schools to justify their spending on English learners until after they get the money. But Hogan said Napolitano's plan has rigorous accountability measures that "ensure that the money gets where it's needed."

Democrats want to have public hearings around the state over the next month to see what parents, teachers and residents think of the plan. The first community forum is tentatively scheduled for June 28 in Phoenix. A location has not been set.

The issue of teaching children English has been a thorny problem for lawmakers for years. In January, a federal judge ruled that lawmakers are shortchanging the students and ordered the Legislature to fix the problem by the end of its 2005 session. A court-ordered cost study in February said Arizona would need to spend an additional $210 million a year to help students overcome language barriers and get a decent education, or more than $1,000 more per child.

GOP lawmakers disputed the study's findings, calling it flawed. Napolitano aides said they used several studies, plus their own research, in determining the proposed amount for the spending increase.

Along with the English-learner plan, Napolitano included a new proposal Friday for a corporate tuition-tax credit for private and parochial schools. Napolitano had vetoed the proposal because she said lawmakers did not include a promised "sunset" provision to repeal the tax credit after five years. Republican leaders have said they made no such deal and have repeatedly accused Napolitano of breaking her word on a negotiated budget deal. They have said they want their original bill signed before they will even talk about the Flores lawsuit.