Legislature's foot-dragging on funding education threatens students' futures
The Arizona Republic
April 22, 2005

Arizona has "first-class academic standards" but ranks near the bottom of our nation in academic funding. Isaac Elementary School District students, teachers and administrators have risen to meet these standards. In the last two years, we have moved from six underperforming to zero underperforming schools. Unfortunately, the Legislature has not met its own standard. It has underperformed by not supporting all Arizona children.

The court in Flores vs. Arizona ruled the Arizona Legislature failed to fund academic programs adequately for students who are "English language learners." These are students who come to school from homes where the primary language is other than English, such as Vietnamese, Navajo, Croatian, Arabic and Spanish.

In the summer of 2002, the state Legislature hired consultants to identify costs associated with educating these Arizona students. The consultants concluded that "an average incremental spending increase of $1,550 per ELL student is needed in order to provide an adequate education."

Rather than provide adequate funding, the Legislature paid for numerous failed court appeals. Finally, the court ordered the Legislature to comply fully with the court's ruling and provide adequate funding. If the Legislature refuses to comply,the state could face sanctions, including the termination of approximately $400 million in federal highway funding. Losing highway construction dollars would be catastrophic for Arizona's growing economy.

Last week, a joint legislative committee meeting was hastily arranged and three school districts from north Phoenix, Prescott Valley and Nogales were invited to present their programs. Other urban school districts in attendance, like Isaac, Alhambra and Osborn, were not invited to offer testimony.

We were prepared to testify on the need for adequate funding for ELL. Adequate funding would provide additional teachers, thus lowering class sizes so that instruction can be more individualized. In addition, adequate funding would provide supplemental instructional resources to assist learning. Yet, on several occasions, committee members suggested that districts simply should play a "shell game" and redirect existing funds for other critical instructional areas. The Legislature is following a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach. That's exactly why Arizona ranks at the bottom of the nation in academic funding. Adequate ELL funding will pay for itself because successful students will, in return, add value to Arizona.

It would seem that the Legislature views ELL students as a burden to our educational system. Are students a burden because they speak a language other than English? Are students a burden because they understand a culture other than that of mainstream America? Are students a burden because many overcome great obstacles in order to get to school every day?

Interestingly, Fortune 500 companies that are competing in a global economy. They cite the need for employees who are proficient in English and another language, and employees who understand American culture and cultures from abroad as well as employees who can overcome obstacles, which means they are resilient.

It is the Legislature that is creating a burden by not adequately funding instructional programs to meet Arizona's "first-class academic standards" for all of our students and poorly preparing Arizona to compete in the global economy.

Kent Scribner is superintendent of the Isaac Elementary School District.