Napolitano is handed English bill
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 3, 2006

Robbie Sherwood and Chip Scutari

After three vetoes and court fines totaling $22 million, a federal judge could finally get to see the Legislature's plan to improve instruction for more than 154,000 school children struggling to learn English.

The Senate narrowly approved House Bill 2064 on Thursday. That sets up a decision expected today by Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano that could end a bitter eight-month stalemate over instruction for English-language learners. The governor's choice: to veto the bill or to let a federal judge consider whether it meets his standards.

Napolitano still has strong objections to the Republican-backed plan that would pump an additional $32 million into schools next year to shrink classrooms, buy teaching materials and provide tutoring.

The plan has substantially less money than what Napolitano proposed, but she is under strong pressure to let U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins see the proposal now that Republicans have removed a controversial corporate tuition-tax credit for private schools. That school choice issue was one of the main reasons for her two most recent vetoes in January.

Key lawmakers in both parties predicted Thursday that Napolitano would let the bill go into law without her signature. They also expect her to include a letter outlining her objections and urging Collins to reject all or part of the plan.

Democratic Rep. Pete Rios, a veteran lawmaker who has longstanding ties with Napolitano, said he asked the governor to "let the bill go through."

"She acknowledged that perhaps it was time for court to deal with it," said Rios, D-Hayden. "She has vetoed it three times. I say let the federal judge deal with it because I don't think it's going to meet with his approval."

Senate President Ken Bennett, a key player in the negotiations, said the time has come to let the federal judge see the legislation.

"We hope the fourth time is a charm and that she will let this bill go to the federal court so we can get determination from them, hopefully in the positive," said Bennett, R-Prescott. "We think it's a balanced plan and a good thing for our state."

Without the tuition-tax credits, another Napolitano veto would carry a higher political risk, especially with daily $1 million fines mounting. She opposes a requirement that districts only get funding to teach students English for two years, when it often takes longer to accomplish the job.

And she believes the plan violates federal law because it forces school districts to devote federal funds they are already receiving to English-learner programs. Democrats have argued that those federal funds designated for low-income students, as well as local tax dollars used to comply with federal desegregation orders, cannot legally be diverted into English-learner programs.

Bennett defended the two-year limit saying it will force districts to teach English in an aggressive time frame.

"For the first time ever, there is some incentive for the school districts to successfully get these students speaking English in two years," he said.

But attorney Tim Hogan of the Center for Law in the Public Interest said yanking the funding from students before they have reached their goal of learning English is "flat unconstitutional." Hogan, whose lawsuit is resulting in the court order and the daily fines, is urging parents and teachers in the high-poverty school districts he represents to call on Napolitano for another veto.

But Hogan acknowledged there is a good chance Napolitano will let this version through to the judge.

The Legislature's latest plan, approved with only Republican votes, increases per-student funding from $355 to $432 per year. The bill calls for a newly created task force to adopt models school districts could use to educate children struggling to learn English.

On Thursday, legislative leaders pledged to follow the task force's advice, even if it called for pumping in significantly more money for English-language learners down the road.

"That's what the bill says and that's what we're prepared to do," said House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix.

The English-learner controversy has moved from the classroom to the Capitol. But there are real-world ramifications for more than 154,000 students in Arizona who speak foreign languages, mostly Spanish, and are struggling to learn English. The situation is believed to be a main reason for Arizona's high dropout rate, as well as the inability of many of the children to adjust to life in Arizona. Administrators in school districts with large immigrant populations have said they would use the extra money to shrink the size of classes, update materials and equipment and better train teachers.

The court-mandated fines began accruing in late January after Napolitano and the Legislature missed a judge's deadline to come up with a plan to pay for English-learner instruction. In December, Judge Collins gave Arizona an ultimatum to spend more money for non-English-speaking schoolchildren. Collins ordered lawmakers and Napolitano to come up with a financial plan by Jan. 24 to help educate English-learners. When they missed that deadline, the daily fines began to accumulate. The fines went from $500,000 a day to $1 million a day last week, and now total $22 million.

Napolitano spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer said the governor will act quickly. "The governor will act within 24 hours," she said. "But I'm not going to predict what she will do."