K -12 education solutions in reach
Arizona Republic
Feb. 5, 2006
There is a way to solve the English-learner impasse and provide more school choice
Robert Robb



There's a grand and comprehensive compromise to be had between Gov. Janet Napolitano and Republican legislators about K-12 education.

The most pressing issue is the funding of English learners, for which a federal judge is assessing daily fines.

There are two fundamental philosophical differences between Republican legislators and Napolitano on this issue.

 Napolitano wants to establish a per-pupil entitlement for English learners that flows automatically to schools based upon the number of such students they have, while Republican legislators want to base funding on demonstrated need through a grant process.

 Republicans also want to use state funds to ensure compliance with the English immersion instructional methodology approved by voters, while Napolitano's proposals, thus far, have been far less rigorous about that.

The federal lawsuit is based upon a false premise, that there is a magical amount of money that can be spent that will make achievement differences between English learners and native speakers disappear. There is no such number.

Nevertheless, the state did not appeal the federal court finding that it was inadequately funding English-learner instruction, a mistake of monumental proportions.

Since the initial court finding, supplemental per-pupil funding for English learners has been increased to $360 from $150. Nevertheless, the state has made no legal claim that this is sufficient. So, legally, the requirement remains for more.

Although the Legislature's approach of basing funding on demonstrated need is sensible given all the unknowns, it has a legal problem. No particular level of funding is guaranteed, making it difficult to legally demonstrate that it will, indeed, be more.

Napolitano wants to phase-in an increase in supplemental per-pupil English learner funding to $1,289. That's hugely expensive without any evidence that it will do the trick or even make much difference. The Legislature increases the per-pupil allotment to $435 for a year, while the grant program is being set up.

Here's the potential compromise: Establish an increase in the per-pupil allotment to somewhere between the Legislature's $435 and the governor's $1,289, preferably closer to the Legislature's lower number given the unknowns. Then put the Legislature's grant process based upon state English immersion models on top of that, rather than as a replacement for it.

This should meet the legal test, since more is assured. Moreover, the range of per-pupil costs identified by a flawed study done for the Legislature was nevertheless quite broad, $356 to $1,901. So, there's a basis given the court's initial silliness to legally argue that whatever figure is chosen isn't arbitrary and capricious, particularly given the additional grant program, even though, in the real world, it is and by necessity must be.

Given the deep philosophical differences and hard feelings between the governor and Republican lawmakers, a reasonable compromise on English learners alone may not be enough of a bridge. There is, however, the possibility of an even broader educational agreement.

Napolitano has two primary educational proposals for this session: fully implementing statewide all-day kindergarten and a teacher pay raise. The cost of both is around $200 million.

Napolitano's all-day kindergarten proposal was mis-sold and mistimed. It wasn't really about expanding educational opportunities, since most school districts were already providing all-day kindergarten with local funds, particularly those serving low-income areas. So, it has always been mostly about transferring costs to the state.

The arguments about the educational benefits of all-day kindergarten are largely beside the point. Arizona is going to have all-day kindergarten because parents want it.

Napolitano first proposed the cost shift when the state was broke, which wasn't particularly propitious timing. Now that the state is flush, however, integrating all-day kindergarten into the overall state-financed system does makes sense.

Republican lawmakers can argue about how much of increased teacher pay should be base vs. merit, and how merit pay should be distributed. But in an era of plenty, it's hard to argue against a pay increase for teachers.

Republican legislators should accept Napolitano's educational priorities in exchange for Napolitano's support for significantly expanded school choice. Preferably this would take the form of parity funding for charter schools and private school vouchers for low-income students.

Interestingly, the risk in this broader compromise lies primarily with the Republicans. They would be counting on the federal judge upholding partial reliance on their grant program for English learners and a low-income voucher surviving an inevitable court challenge.

Nevertheless, the greater resistance would likely come from Napolitano, who at this point has an intellectually indefensible allergy to giving poor kids and their parents the opportunity to choose the educational setting they believe would most benefit them.

Nevertheless, a grand compromise that results in both better-funded public schools, particularly for English learners, and more educational choices, particularly for low-income students, is both possible and sensible.

Reach Robb at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8472. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.