Language-funding hike being pushed
The Arizona Republic
May. 13, 2005
Robbie Sherwood and Chip Scutari
Under the gun from a federal court order, state lawmakers were trying to approve a funding increase to help students overcome language barriers late Thursday night, the last major issue they must tackle before closing the legislative session.

The Republican plan would spend about $42 million next year for English-language-learner programs and teacher training, although only $13.5
million would be new funding. That could draw a veto from Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano.

It was unclear how much more the state would spend in future years because schools would be required to apply for grants from the state Department of Education to pay for English-learner programs. In fact, the bill would create a grant program that is subject to legislative approval.

"The districts will have an administrative nightmare trying to put these proposals together," said Senate Democratic Leader Linda Aguirre. "I have asked the governor to veto the bill because I don't think it will help these students."

Republican Rep. Tom Boone, who helped craft the plan, said his bill was an honest attempt to satisfy the court.

"We have no idea what the court will do," said Boone, one of the House Appropriations chairmen and an architect of the plan. "Whether the judge accepts it is up to the judge, but we've tried to address every portion of his decree. We'll see what happens. I think we've done our due diligence."

The issue of English-language learners grew out of a lawsuit, Flores vs. Arizona, filed by a Nogales family in 1992. 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 reported 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.

The state now spends about $355 per child on English learners, or students who speak another language and are trying to learn English.

In all, Arizona spends nearly $80 million a year on English-learner education programs. The new plan would push spending to more than $400 per child for the 175,000 students in Arizona called English-language learners.

The money comes with many strings, and was opposed by House and Senate Democrats who said the amount was not adequate and could jeopardize state highway funds by landing the state back in court. Democrats said they would ask Napolitano to veto the plan because they offered at least four counterproposals to Republican leaders, but all were rejected. The Democrats' plan called for an infusion of roughly $90 million over the next three years.

Napolitano's chief lobbyist, Mike Haener, said he didn't know if the governor would accept the new plan, but he said her pledge to sign the negotiated budget was contingent on "a satisfactory" solution to the Flores issue.

"If the Flores plan is not satisfactory, do you still have a deal?" Haener said. "I don't know the answer to that."

Sen. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson, was more blunt.

"Arizona has underfunded English learners for a long period of time," Giffords said. "This won't get students up to speed. The dropout rate among Hispanic students is very, very high. It's as simple as that."

The language funding issue is the last piece of the Legislature's budget plan, which has not yet been sent to Gov. Janet Napolitano after being approved last week.

Tim Hogan of Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest said the legislative plan falls far short of complying with the federal court order. Hogan noted the bill requires schools to apply all other funding that could be used for English learners, including federal dollars, before they can apply for the state grants. Some schools would qualify for the new state grants, while others might have to pass a property tax for the same program.