Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX — About one in seven children in Arizona schools is here because of illegal immigration.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that between 50,000 and 60,000 children of school age in this state are in this country illegally. And between 80,000 and 90,000 are the children of people who crossed the border illegally but are U.S. citizens by virtue of their birth.
That fact could loom large in the Legislature's discussion of how much Arizona taxpayers are going to have to spend to ensure that children learn English.
Both Gov. Janet Napolitano and Republican legislative leaders have pledged to focus attention on the problem of people crossing the border illegally. But when they convene today they face a Jan. 24 federal court deadline to come up with a funding plan to accommodate English language education for children who already are here and attending Arizona schools or begin paying fines of $500,000 a day.
Jeffrey Passel, a senior research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Hispanic Center, said he presumes "many" of the approximately 150,000 students here because of illegal immigration are among the 160,000 youngsters classified as "English language learners."
Legally speaking, the number is irrelevant: Federal law precludes schools from inquiring about the citizenship or residency status of children living in their district. And schools also are required to ensure that all students learn English.
Napolitano has sought to minimize the question of the legal status of these children, noting, "We need a well-trained, English-speaking work force."
State School Superintendent Tom Horne, says, "They're here and they need to be educated."
The governor backs a plan to resolve the court case simply by giving schools more money based on the number of English-language-learning students they have, perhaps up to $1,200 — more than three times the $360 per student the state now provides. But for some the price tag of Napolitano's proposal — an estimated $200 million a year — is too high.
"Under the governor's proposal, this now becomes Mexico's best school district north of the border," said House Speaker Jim Weiers.
The Republican plan would require schools to come up with a plan to teach English, identify all available state, federal and local dollars — any shortfall would come from state taxpayers.
Napolitano has so far balked at that idea, at least in part because it might not provide districts with the cash they need year after year.
Senate President Ken Bennett said he is willing to tweak the GOP proposal to provide guaranteed funding. But Bennett said he cannot support simply giving more cash without some proof from schools that that is what they need.
There is another sticking point in the negotiations: whether the federal aid schools are getting will count.
In his ruling last month, U.S. District Judge Raner Collins said federal dollars already going to school districts are legally irrelevant to the state meeting its legal burden.
Horne is asking an appeals court to overturn that decision.