Political system taking a hit
Republic columnist
Jan. 27, 2006

English-learner feud may be costly beyond the money

Robert Robb

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 classrooms.

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