GOP English bill vetoed
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 25, 2006

Governor disagreed on tuition-tax credit

Robbie Sherwood and Chip Scutari

Gov. Janet Napolitano unexpectedly vetoed a Republican-backed plan to help children who don't speak English, triggering a late-night emergency session in which lawmakers passed a new bill before a midnight deadline to avoid $500,000-a-day fines.

Napolitano pinned her veto on a last-minute amendment allowing a tuition-tax credit for private-school scholarships. She called the tax credit a "poison pill" that would drain hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools instead of helping them teach struggling children.

Republicans responded quickly with a new, but similar, "English-learner" bill that capped the tuition-tax credit at $50 million annually. That move avoided for now daily fines from a federal judge for violating the deadline to fix the state's instruction plan for English-language learners. The fines could grow to $2 million a day if lawmakers don't get a plan to U.S. District Judge Raner Collins by the end of the legislative session.

More than 150,000 students in Arizona speak foreign languages, mostly Spanish, and are struggling to learn English. That has contributed to Arizona's high dropout rate and sparked a class-action lawsuit 14 years ago.

Administrators in school districts with large immigrant populations have said they need extra money to shrink the size of classes, update materials and equipment, to provide individual instruction and to better train teachers.

The governor's plan

Napolitano has a plan that would spend $45 million this year, and eventually up to $185 million a year, to help children learn English. Republican leaders have so far refused to consider the plan because they believe it spends too much and is not based on a credible cost study.

On Tuesday afternoon, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard asked Judge Collins to set aside any fines for an eventual English-language-learners program. Earlier in the day, Napolitano said a veto was worth the risk of fines rather than sending the judge a plan she called "the next alternative-fuel fiasco," referring to legislation state lawmakers passed in 2000.

The Republicans' original bill featured new corporate tuition-tax credits for English-language-learner scholarships but contained no limits on how much money businesses could divert from public schools and into private and parochial schools. Napolitano said that plan could have cost upward of $850 million, quoting a figure by a senior economist at the Department of Revenue.

"Bad things happen in this Legislature in the dark of night," said Napolitano, who was surrounded by about 40 school officials, Latino leaders and Democratic lawmakers. "If allowed to go into law, it would mean no teacher pay raise, no ability to pay back its debts, no money for border security."

Napolitano compared it to one of the state's worst fiscal decisions, a wildly popular tax credit in 2000 that paid up to half of the cost of thousands of new trucks and sport utility vehicles converted to run on alternative fuels such as propane.

The "alt-fuels fiasco" threatened to break the state budget before lawmakers eliminated the tax breaks.

"Let me be very clear: This is a fight for kids, it's a fight for the next generation," Napolitano added.

"It's a fight for the many, many kids in our schools who come from families who do not speak English. We don't need a bill that has an uncapped corporate tax credit on it that is remarkably like the alternative-fuels tax credit."

House Majority Leader Steve Tully scoffed at Napolitano's insinuation that the corporate tuition-tax credits could cost $850 million.

"And pigs may fly someday, too," Tully, R-Phoenix, told reporters. "Alt fuels was a refundable tax credit. This is not a refundable tax credit."

The Republican plan

The Republican plan would spend about $31 million next year on English-language-learner programs, though more than $7 million of that is for administrative expenses, testing and auditing. But after one year, schools would have to apply for state grants for English-language programs, and only after they had applied any federal education funding they were receiving to address the problem.

The grant requests could be rejected by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne and lawmakers if the schools are judged to be not spending enough of their federal education and desegregation dollars on English-language programs.

Critics, including Tim Hogan of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, called that aspect of the plan unconstitutional. Hogan applauded Napolitano for her veto.

"This is a reprieve for English-language learners," Hogan said. "The question now is whether we can get a productive solution to the problem. This is exactly what we need to happen, have the threat of these fines hanging over the Legislature's head so we can come up with a reasonable solution."

Republican legislative leaders have repeatedly said that their plan adds accountability and that it would help schools determine the real cost of helping English-language learners.

Napolitano would not say whether she would allow the Republican bill to go forward to the judge with the cap on the tuition-tax credit component.

Split among Latinos

Some in the Latino community were split on Napolitano's veto. Parent Danny Valenzuela has been closely watching the issue and was relieved with the governor's decision, despite the threat of costly fines.

"I didn't think it'd be vetoed," the 30-year-old Glendale firefighter said. "It's hypocritical to say, 'We want to do English only, but let's not do enough to get the kids up to par.' You want the best opportunities for your kids.

"You want them to get the best education, and you certainly want them to have the best chance in this country. That means they've got to learn English."

But Andres Perez, a father of three kids whose first language was Spanish, believes students struggling to learn English would pick up the language more quickly without English-language-learner programs. The Cuban immigrant came to the United States in 1980 and said he learned English in six months.

"The honest to God truth is, I learned it a lot faster than if I would've had a program, because it forced me to learn English," said Perez, who lives in Litchfield Park and owns a landscaping company.

"I learned it the hard way, which was, you point and you say 'pencil,' and then you repeat. If you don't have a choice, you learn it quick."

Staff reporter Yvonne Wingett contributed to this article.