GOP must keep fighting on English-learner issue
Aug. 14, 2005
Robert Robb, Arizona Republic columnist
Last week, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano met with the Republican legislative
leaders to try to overcome bitterness over some of her vetoes and work toward a
compromise on English-learner funding.
In divided government, responsible leadership usually requires compromise. But
unless Napolitano is willing to largely abandon her English-learner proposal,
this is a case where Republicans should fight rather than concede.
Napolitano proposes that students in Arizona schools who are designated as not
proficient in English receive an additional $1,289 a year in state funding,
phased in over three years.
The state Board of Education is supposed to designate the methods for testing
proficiency. But with this much money at stake, the system will inevitably be
The only certain outcome of Napolitano's proposal is that more students will be
designated English learners than otherwise would be the case, and they will stay
so designated for longer than would otherwise be the case. After all, school
districts will stand to lose a lot of money for every kid who is deemed
proficient and leaves the program.
Sensible public policy aligns incentives with success, not failure.
Moreover, Napolitano's proposal is very expensive. The current estimate is $185
million a year, but given the perverse incentives involved, that's likely a
Despite the high cost, there is scant evidence that Napolitano's program will
result in non-English-speakers learning the language any quicker or reduce the
academic gap between native speakers and English learners.
Napolitano's $1,289 per-pupil grant, the precision of which is a self-parody, is
apparently based in significant part on a study conducted for the Legislature.
But that study consisted simply of a range of estimates from a couple of panels
of supposed experts. The study did not offer much evidence that spending such
amounts would produce better results.
Moreover, the study rather stiffly excluded the instructional methodology
prescribed by voters with the passage of Proposition 203, structured English
immersion. Under structured English immersion, English learners are supposed to
be in separate classrooms receiving intense English instruction. They aren't
supposed to be transferred into regular classrooms until they achieve
About the only useful finding in the legislative study was that the school
districts surveyed were largely ignoring Proposition 203 and keeping English
learners in regular classrooms for most of the day.
And that's another deficiency in the governor's proposal: It doesn't do much to
require school districts to comply with Proposition 203's mandate for structured
The approach passed by Republicans last session and vetoed by Napolitano is more
sensible. It recognized that a lot of current money is also being used for
English-learner instruction, even if it is not specifically so designated.
A pool of money was created to which school districts could apply based upon
actual need, including an examination of all sources of money available, and
only to implement structured English-immersion instruction.
But isn't there a lawsuit requiring the state to do something similar to what
Napolitano is proposing? Frankly, that's another reason why Republicans should
fight rather than concede. The lawsuit is an egregious example of judicial
A federal judge struck down Arizona's entire system of English acquisition,
based upon evidence from just one unrepresentative school district in Nogales.
The decision is grounded in the superstition that there is some magical amount
of money that will make disparities in achievement between native speakers and
English learners disappear.
It is also based, in part, upon a state constitutional theory - that a general
and uniform system of education requires disproportionately higher funding for
those statistically at risk of lagging behind - that Arizona's state courts have
thus far not accepted. And the plaintiffs in the case are asking for a remedy -
withholding of federal highway funds - that isn't authorized by the federal law
Rather than succumbing at this point to this brazen usurpation, Republican
legislators should continue to support prudent, sensible improvements to
English-learner instruction that comply with Proposition 203. After all,
legislators can always give in to sanctions if they are ultimately upheld on
Some other states are exploring giving up federal education dollars to get out
from under the mandates of President Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation. If
this judicial legislating regarding state English-acquisition programs is
actually upheld on appeal, perhaps it will be time for Arizona to also explore
the possibilities and the price of emancipation from federal intrusions.
Reach Robb at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (602) 444-8472. His column
appears Sundays, Wednesday and Fridays