GOP must keep fighting on English-learner issue
Arizona Republic
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 gamed.

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 gross underestimation.

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 proficiency.

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 English immersion.

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 legislating.

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 at issue.

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 appeal.

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 or (602) 444-8472. His column appears Sundays, Wednesday and Fridays