English-learner effort hindered by Napolitano
Arizona Senate President
Mar. 5, 2006

Ken Bennett http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/viewpoints/articles/0305bennett0305new.html

At its core, English-language learner education involves the federal requirement that non-English-speaking students get instruction to make them proficient in English.

Fiscally, the focus should be on actual costs demonstrated by data from school districts. Administratively, many want to leave such programs open-ended, with no requirements ensuring that students become proficient in English in a reasonable time. But sidestepping accountability is wrong for students and taxpayers.

Practically, a job needs to be done for English-learners. But at what reasonable cost per pupil above what is already being spent on all students? If the state is spending $6,000 per pupil on English-speaking students, what is the rationale for spending, as Gov. Janet Napolitano has suggested, nearly $1,300 above that for English-learners without demonstrating the need for that level of additional expense?

Politically, elements of each of the above are intertwined with marked ideological differences in approaches to the problem. Should school choice be part of the solution? Accountability? Verifiable costs? Shouldn't we use federal dollars to address a federal mandate? And what about the spending preference created for English-learners over English-speaking students?

With about 135,000 of 154,000 English-learners being children of illegal aliens, it is impossible to ignore the issue's connection to the illegal immigration issue.

Arizona was funding such programs when a lawsuit that examined one district near the Mexican border determined that funding statewide was insufficient. Over time, the amount was nearly tripled, and still the court said, "Not enough."

The Legislature passed a bill last session increasing English-learner funding by nearly $30 million in the initial transition year. More importantly, it called for critical reforms that ensured an efficient use of taxpayer money and a framework for success in achieving English proficiency for such students.

Among the reforms were determinations of actual costs for each district following the initial year, an incentive that schools succeed in getting students English proficient within two years, use of appropriate federal funds to complement the state load and honoring the voters' will under Proposition 203 that Structured English Immersion is the best way to instruct non-English-speaking students.

Napolitano vetoed this bill, refusing to allow the judge to evaluate it and put the state's judicial liability to rest. She favors an approach that throws big dollars at the problem without regard to actual need, and eschews accountability.

With the state facing enormous fines from a December federal contempt order, Republicans have passed three more bills since January that support the core principles of accountability and actual costs. The governor vetoed the first two bills and actually encouraged the judge to continue assessing fines against the state. The fines now total more than $20 million and have been mounting at a $1 million per day.

The third bill of the session went up to her on Thursday. It is the result of lengthy negotiating sessions between legislative leaders and the governor. It reflects several compromises to finally get Arizona's English-learner plan to the judge. Friday, the governor acknowledged "it is time to take this matter to a federal judge"; of course, this is after she vetoed three attempts to do just that. Yet, the governor has sabotaged even this latest effort. In her letter filled with disingenuous arguments against the state's interests, the governor actually urged the judge to reject the Arizona-learner plan.

If this was what the governor had in mind, she should have taken this tack months ago and saved Arizona's taxpayers millions of dollars in fines. It is outrageous for this governor, who has sworn to defend Arizona, to send the plan to the court, and at the same time attempt to poison the judge's review of it.

Despite the governor's continuing efforts to obstruct the path to an English-learner solution, I have faith that Judge Raner Collins will base his decision on the merits of the plan. This measure addresses the court's concerns, and I look forward to his review.

Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, is the president of the Arizona Senate and can be reached at Kbennett@azleg.state.az.us.