Politicians offer no port in the storm for English-learners
Arizona Republic
Mar. 7, 2006


As it turns out, Arab billionaires and dirt-poor Spanish-speaking kids from Arizona have something in common: They're both irrationally attacked by vote-seeking politicians.

Although if I had to guess, I'd say that the rich sheiks from Dubai will be running U.S. ports long before kids who are struggling to learn English get any help from Arizona politicians.

Luckily for those kids, however, that sad assessment doesn't deter Tim Hogan one tiny bit.

"I'm not going to give up or stop fighting," Hogan told me. "Some other people might, but not us. This is yet another chapter but the book has yet to be finished. The end for us is when a court says that it is the end. I can deal with that. But in the meantime, if there is a chance to help these kids, then that is what we're going to do."

Hogan is with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. Years ago, the center won a lawsuit against the state over the way it underfunded English-learning programs in the schools.

The case has dragged on because politicians have dragged their feet. In January, a judge began to fine the state for not coming up with a plan to pay for the program. The cost had risen to $1 million a day until last week, when Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano allowed a bill that the Republican majority had forced through the Legislature to become law without her signature, putting a hold on the fines at $21 million.

Napolitano had rejected previous proposals, saying they were inadequate. Hogan believes that she should have vetoed the most recent one, too. But he became resigned to the fact that she wouldn't.

"It means that we will have to go back to court and convince the judge that this doesn't satisfy the court's orders," he said. "I think that once the fines got near the amount of funding the governor originally proposed, $45 million, that the negotiations would have moved forward. But I believe that there is a sense of weariness about it (from the governor's office). They wanted to pass it on for the judge to decide."

There are more than 150,000 kids in Arizona whose first language is something other than English. For most, it's Spanish. The state's failure to bring a lot of these kids into the mainstream is one of the reasons for Arizona's high dropout rate.

"We went through a period where people were presenting the Legislature with statistics on the cost of dropouts on the rest of us in terms of crime, welfare and everything else," Hogan said. "But it didn't seem to matter. We had three strikes against us before things got started."

The kids in question are poor. That's strike 1. Their parents are not power brokers, political patrons or even voters. That's strike 2. This is an election year. That's strike 3.

Attacking English-learners makes a lawmaker look like he's tough on immigration. Or at least on immigrant kids, which apparently is close enough.

In a written statement, Napolitano let her feelings about the bill be known, saying, "More than one-quarter of the new money appropriated in this bill is for the creation of a new bureaucracy within the Department of Education rather than actual classroom education."

The judge could reject the plan or allow it to become law. If he does the latter, Hogan said, "We are condemning many of these kids to failure. They will just drop out of school."

On the bright side, abandoning the English-learners will lead almost certainly to a boost in the state's standardized AIMS test scores. Dropouts don't count.

Reach Montini at ed.montini@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8978. Read his blog at montiniblog.azcentral.com.