GOP English plan may get veto
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX — Courting a potential veto, the Republican-controlled Legislature on Monday adopted a GOP-favored funding plan for teaching English in public schools and sent it to the Democratic governor, but not before adding a provision making the bill even more distasteful to her.
The legislation requires schools with students classified as "English-language learners" — those not proficient in English — to choose a form of English immersion approved by a special task force and then submit requests for state funding.
The measure staves off for now the threat of $500,000-a-day federal fines for failing to properly fund the programs in compliance with a court order.
Several Republicans broke ranks with their leadership, however, over a last-minute change in the law to create an entirely new $500 individual state tax credit for scholarships to private and parochial schools — a dollar-for-dollar tax offset.
That is in addition to the $500 credit taxpayers already can get for donations to scholarship organizations.
The new credit requires 90 percent of the money go to the teaching of English-language learners.
And for the first time ever, corporations could divert an unlimited amount of their state tax obligations to organizations that provide these scholarships, potentially taking a big bite out of the $850 million in corporate taxes in this year's budget.
Sen. Toni Hellon, R-Tucson, said that gives U.S. District Judge Raner Collins an excuse to reject the measure as not responsive to his order requiring the state to come up with a financing plan for English learners.
And Sen. Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale, said the plan "has the potential to be an endless financial drain" on the state treasury.
Despite that, the measure gained Senate approval on a 16-14 vote before being approved 35-23 in the House.
The new language puts Gov. Janet Napolitano "in the position she can't let this go through" because of the unknown cost, said Sen. Robert Cannell, D-Yuma.
An aide to Napolitano said she was not ready to comment on the measure.
Lawmakers beat Collins' deadline of today to adopt a plan to fund English instruction for students who come to school speaking another language.
Some legislators were not pleased with the order and the deadline, with Rep. Doug Quelland, R-Phoenix, calling Collins a "tyrant."
Monday's action buys the state a little time. Collins said Napolitano can take the five days she is entitled to under the Arizona Constitution — not counting Sundays — to decide whether to sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without her signature.
Despite the potential fines, attorney Tim Hogan is urging a veto. Hogan, who represents the parents of students who filed the original 1992 lawsuit over inadequate funding, said Republican lawmakers will craft what he believes is an acceptable plan once fines start accumulating.
"That's the biggest hammer we've got right now," he said.
The GOP plan has the backing of state School Superintendent Tom Horne, who noted the federal court said the amount of state aid provided to schools specifically to teach English-language learners was "arbitrary."
While the state increased that amount from $155 to about $360 per student, Collins said there still is no evidence that the figure is sufficient.
Napolitano and Democrats favor a plan to boost that amount to $1,200 for each of the state's approximately 160,000 English learners at a cost of more than $135 million a year. In contrast, the plan approved Monday has only an extra $30 million at this point.
But Horne said having schools identify their costs and what funds they already have available, with the state funding only the difference, meets Collins' requirement for a "scientific basis" for state funding.
The new tax credit is designed to give English-language learners additional school choices. Sen. Bob Burns, R-Glendale, said parents of children who aren't learning English need an option "that gets the job done."
Cannell countered that nothing in this plan assures private and parochial schools actually will provide better education.
But Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, said they could hardly do worse, saying English-deficient students have "essentially no detectable level of academic achievement" after years in existing programs.
The legislation does not address the other part of the judge's order, which forbids the state to require English learners to pass the AIMS test to get high school diplomas until programs are adequately funded.