English-learners directive is a quite impossible task
Arizona Republic
Feb. 27, 2005

Robert Robb, columnist


With respect to English learners, the federal court has sent the Arizona Legislature on a fool's errand.

In 2000, a federal judge found that the amount Arizona spent to help K-12 non-native speakers learn English was "arbitrary and capricious."

At the time, the state was providing an additional $150 in state aid for each such student. That might arguably have been arbitrary, but it was hardly capricious, since it had held steady for eight years. In legal circles, however, arbitrary and capricious go together, like eggs and bacon. So arbitrary and capricious it was.

That, in turn, held the court, violated a federal law requiring the state to "take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in instructional programs."

So, the court ordered the state to determine an amount of money for English learners that would enable them to meet educational standards as measured by the AIMS test.

Now, that's quite a stretch of the requirement to provide "equal participation." But more importantly, it's an impossible task.

The premise of the court directive is that there is some amount of money, spent in a particular way, that will ensure that English learners meet educational standards, or at least that they do not fail them by greater percentages than native speakers.

But there is no such amount of money. Nor is there any instructional methodology that will get students to universally meet any educational standard worth having, or to eliminate all discrepancies in achievement between English learners and native speakers.

Nevertheless, the Legislature commissioned a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures to find the magical figure. A draft report was issued last week.

NCSL convened two panels, one of state educators and the other of national experts. The national experts are named but the local educators are anonymous. Each panel deliberated for a day and a half.

The magic number ranges from an increase of $356 to $1,901 per student, depending on the student's grade and level of English proficiency.

The total cost to the state from the recommendations is likely to run north of $200 million a year.

The study, however, provides no analysis of why spending these particular amounts should be expected to enable English learners to meet standards as measured by AIMS. We're supposed to take the experts' word for it.

More astonishingly, the study actually provides evidence that it won't work. The largest cost component in the panel recommendations is to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes. But the report also says that the AIMS scores of English learners on reading, at least through eighth grade, are not correlated to teacher-pupil ratios.

In any sane world, the Legislature wouldn't spend $200 million a year based upon three days work by 12 purported experts, more than half of whom are anonymous. Particularly when there is more evidence that their recommendations won't work than that they will.

But this isn't a sane world. It's the world of judge-directed public policy.
So, the Legislature is in a pickle.

Meanwhile, the voters of Arizona also made a decision about English learners in 2000, when they passed Proposition 203, generally prohibiting bilingual education in favor of English immersion.

The idea was that English learners would be put in separate classrooms where they would receive intense English instruction while keeping up as best they could in other subjects. They would not be transferred into regular classrooms until they demonstrated English proficiency.

True English immersion classrooms shouldn't be much more expensive than regular classrooms. The major difference is the curriculum, with its overriding emphasis on English acquisition.

But, according to the NCSL report, most school districts are keeping English learners in regular classrooms, not putting them in separate English immersion classes as the law clearly contemplates.

Here's a radical idea that would better serve both English learners and native speakers: The state could contract out English immersion instruction for English learners. Only students proficient in English would be admitted to traditional schools.

That way, the policy choice of voters for English immersion, which is clearly still being resisted by traditional schools, could get a fair chance at implementation. English learners would be taught by those with the singular mission of getting them proficient and mainstreamed. And native speakers would not have time on task diluted by English learners in their classrooms.

It shouldn't cost any more than the state is currently spending: $4,700 in average state aid per pupil plus what is now a $355 English learner bonus should attract bidders.

There would, of course, be objections by the educational establishment, which wouldn't want to lose the money or the control, and doesn't really want English immersion implemented.

But the real question is whether the proposal would be too sensible for the court to accept.

Reach Robb at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8472. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.