English bill beats deadline
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 24, 2006

$14 mil to aid state learners, satisfy judge

Chip Scutari and Robbie Sherwood

Facing court fines of $500,000 a day if they didn't act by today, Arizona lawmakers passed a bill Monday night that adds about $14 million next year into programs for children struggling to learn English.

U.S. District Judge Raner Collins forced the action in December by threatening huge fines unless the state could approve a financial plan to help tens of thousands of children who lack necessary English-language skills.

The $14 million is notably less than Gov. Janet Napolitano's proposal to spend up to $185 million a year on the English-learners. Napolitano has five days to sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without her signature.

She faces one of the biggest political dilemmas of her first term. If she signs the bill, she will likely anger many of her strongest supporters. If she vetoes it, she could be blamed for the fines imposed by the judge. If she lets it become law without her signature, the judge might reject the plan, delaying the funding for another year or more.

Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, whose lawsuit led to the judge's ruling, said Monday's action by the House and Senate isn't nearly enough.

"They don't want to spend any additional money on these kids," Hogan said.
"Inner-city school districts will never see a dime of new state money under this plan."

In addition to the $14 million in spending, the bill has two key provisions:

Schools in low-income areas would be forced to shift federal dollars now used for poverty-related programs to English-learner instruction before getting any state help.

A last-minute change in the bill would create a corporate tuition-tax credit for private and parochial school scholarships. The aid would go to English-language learning students who wish to get out of public schools.
Napolitano, who already has vetoed similar bills twice, is likely to use a line-item veto to reject that part of the bill.

'Outside the box'
Republican leaders such as House Speaker Jim Weiers praised the plan as "something different and completely outside the box" that adds accountability and veers away from simply spending more money on a system that has not succeeded in educating non-English-speaking children.

"As for what the judge will do, I don't know," Weiers said. "Maybe the governor will say that she wants to veto the bill and say that she knows better than the judge does."

School-choice advocates said the plan will also now provide impoverished students a chance to improve their fortunes with a private-school education through the tuition-tax credit.

Education advocates and public interest lawyers are lobbying for a veto, a move that could trigger daily fines that could eventually hit $2 million a day because they believe the plan won't satisfy a 6-year-old court order to improve instruction for English-learners. Critics said the plan doesn't guarantee increased funding beyond one year and would force schools to use federal money now used for free and reduced lunches and other poverty-related programs to teach students English. Napolitano, who favors a plan to spend up to $185 million a year on English-learners, vetoed a similar legislative plan in May.

High dropout rate
More than 150,000 students in Arizona speak foreign languages, mostly Spanish, and are struggling to learn English. The situation is believed to be a main reason for Arizona's high dropout rate, as well as the inability of many of the children to adjust to life in Arizona. Administrators in school districts with large immigrant populations have said they need extra money to shrink the size of classes, update materials and equipment, provide more individual instruction and better train teachers.

New classroom money
The $14 million in new classroom money in the Republican program would last for one year. Then schools would be required to seek grants for new funding.
Those requests could be rejected by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne and lawmakers if the schools are not spending enough of their federal education and desegregation dollars on English-language programs. Hogan believes Judge Collins would reject such a plan. And adding in a tuition-tax credit, which redirects money from public schools to private schools, will only make the problems highlighted in the Flores vs. Arizona lawsuit worse, Hogan said.

"Nobody can say with a straight face that tuition-tax credits are actually a response to the court's orders in Flores," Hogan said. "That's somebody else's political agenda. It's not going to help these kids. I'm not aware of any private school that has English-language learner programs in place anyway."

The 1992 case Flores found that current funding wasn't enough to ensure that students overcame language barriers.

The case is an extension of the Equal Education Opportunity Act of 1974, a federal law that prohibits states from denying education opportunities based on race, color, sex or national origin.

U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez concluded that the state's system of English-learning programs was "arbitrary and capricious." That phrase has haunted the Arizona Legislature.

More effort
Margaret Serna, a principal at Tavan Elementary in the Scottsdale Unified School District, said it take more effort for teachers to teach English-learner students.

"When you work with second-language students, sometimes you have to put in twice the amount of time and effort to get those children to perform," said Serna, 45 percent of whose district are English-learners.

'Different strategies'
"When we work with second-language students, it's either pay me now or pay me later. I'd rather catch them while they're young and give them all the intervention they need. You need different strategies to work with them."

Currently, Arizona spends about $360 on every student who is classified as an English learner.

The legislation would bump up that to about $435 per student, but future spending increases would be uncertain because it would become a grant program subject to approval by the Department of Education and the Legislature.

House Appropriations Chairman Russell Pearce saw the legislation is a good way to solve the Flores problem.

"I get tired of hearing there isn't any new money in this bill," said Pearce, R-Mesa. "There is $30 million above what we spend right now."