Political system taking a hit
Jan. 27, 2006
English-learner feud may be costly beyond the money
At this point, the English-learner dispute has become as much about
representative government as about teaching non-native speakers.
There's no question that educating the large number of non-native speakers in
Arizona schools is one of the most important challenges facing the state.
However, there are more unknowns than knowns about how that is best achieved.
There is a fierce debate in policy circles about the extent to which the native
language, in Arizona's case overwhelmingly Spanish, should be used in moving
kids along academically. It is also unclear what is currently being spent from
all sources on English-learners in Arizona schools.
In Arizona, the instructional methodology issue was settled, rightly or wrongly,
by voters in 2000 with the passage of Proposition 203, which required that
non-native speakers be taught in English in classrooms dedicated to them.
English-learners weren't to be transferred to regular classrooms until they
demonstrated English proficiency.
A legislative study found that, for the most part, Arizona schools weren't
complying with this requirement and English-learners largely remained in regular
The proposal by legislative Republicans is well suited to the current
circumstances, particularly the preponderance of the unknowns and the lack of
real compliance with Proposition 203.
Under their proposal, the state would identify conforming English immersion
programs that could be implemented by the schools. Schools would then calculate
what it would cost to implement them and current funds available to cover that
cost. Schools could then apply to the state for a grant to make up any shortage.
English-learners would also be given access to private-school scholarships.
This has particularly caught Gov. Janet Napolitano's ire, but she has yet to
justify denying the students most in need access to the educational setting they
and their parents think will best benefit them.
Napolitano's alternative is for the state to give an additional $1,289 each year
to schools for each English-learner. The total cost is estimated at
$185 million a year, although the actual cost would likely be much higher, given
the huge financial incentive for schools to label students as English-learners
and keep them so designated.
Napolitano's figure is roughly based on a legislative study. But that study
involved a couple of days of discussions by a couple of panels, with the
membership of one being kept confidential, about what teaching English-learners
might cost. In a sane world, the state wouldn't spend hundreds of millions of
dollars based upon a couple days of noodling by purported experts, some of whom
are unknown. Moreover, the noodling wasn't based upon the instructional
methodology dictated by Arizona voters.
But this isn't a sane world. This is a world operating under the cloud of a
federal court order.
The federal law in question simply provides that educational agencies take
"appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal
participation by its students in its instructional program."
The federal law provides no guidance as to what appropriate action might be,
offers no federal funding to achieve it, and specifies no sanctions for
violations. In other words, it's Congress at its worst, enacting a sentiment
rather than a truly prescriptive law.
In the hands of a federal judge, "equal participation" became "equal
achievement." And "appropriate action" became disproportionately higher funding
sufficient to ensure equal achievement.
But there is no such magical figure. In fact, there is not even any reasonably
informed speculation about how much the achievement of English-learners would
improve if Napolitano's per-pupil grant were adopted.
In any sane world, the Legislature's proposal would satisfy the hopelessly vague
"appropriate action" standard of the federal law. But Napolitano, through her
vetoes, is preventing the judge from even considering that question.
So, now fines are supposed to be imposed, which Napolitano is requesting be
directed to increase per-pupil funding for English-learners irrespective of
demonstrated need, which is what she has proposed all along.
In other words, Napolitano is trying, through her veto and litigation strategy,
to prevent the Legislature's proposal from even being considered while getting
her proposal funded without it being approved by the Legislature.
That's a neat trick. But it's also an affront to representative government.
Reach Robb at firstname.lastname@example.org or (602) 444-8472. His column
appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.