Power struggle impedes effort to teach English
Arizona Daily Star
Feb. 26, 2006

Our view: The bitter struggle between the Legislature and the governor over English-language learning hurts everyone

Tucson, Arizona | Published: 02.26.2006


An issue referred to simply as "the Flores case" has emerged as a symbol of the crippling animosity that divides Gov. Janet Napolitano and the Republicans who control the Legislature.

The hostility has become so extreme that the details in this case a major fight over money for teaching English to non-English-speaking children have practically become unimportant.

The conflict is more than a schoolyard fight. It's a bitter and very costly war that already has siphoned $16 million out of the state's general fund, and it is bound to absorb more.

It's a conflict that needs to end now. The battle is no longer about how much money should be distributed to public schools to teach these children English. It has descended into a battle about power.

It about the governor not letting the Legislature walk all over her; she has veto power and will use it. And it's about conservative lawmakers thinking this governor can't be trusted to keep her word.

Unfortunately, it's also about a crucial but seldom articulated subtext that says teaching English to these children shouldn't be a concern because, after all, many of them are children of parents who entered the U.S. illegally.

Last month, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that between 50,000 and 60,000 school-age children in Arizona are in the country illegally. It also said as many as 90,000 are children born in the United States to parents who crossed the border illegally. These children are U.S. citizens by virtue of birth.

Bitter and costly war, with a touch of bigotry

Underlying the political warfare at the Capitol is an insidious hint of bigotry coupled with frustration over immigration problems and the idea that money alone cannot resolve education issues.

Republican House Speaker Jim Weiers, commenting last month on one of the governor's attempts to resolve the issue by allocating up to $200 million a year for the English program, articulated this frustration when he declared, "Under the governor's proposal, this (Arizona) now becomes Mexico's best school district north of the border."

Buried deep in the heart of this battle is a lawsuit filed by the Flores family of Nogales in 1992. The suit alleged that the state was remiss in its responsibilities to provide adequate funding for English-language-learning programs for students in public schools who speak a foreign language.

The federal Equal Education Opportunity Act of 1974 says, "The failure by an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs" is illegal.

In 2000, U.S. District Judge Raner Collins ruled in favor of the Flores family. The state increased its spending on the English-learner program but the judge said the response was inadequate.

'Negotiations' fruitless

The Democratic governor and the Republican majority in the Legislature have been warring over a bill that they can present to the judge that addresses the problem while meeting the ideological concerns of the two political parties.

So far, the negotiations a rather generous description for what's been going on have produced little more than acrimonious whining and political posturing from both sides. It is a model of how two branches of government should not work.

It is also very expensive.

In December, Judge Collins, apparently weary of the back-biting and inaction, told state officials they needed to devise an English-language-learners program that conformed to federal law by Jan. 24.

In the absence of such a program, he said, he would begin imposing a fine of $500,000 a day.

On Jan. 24, the governor and the legislative leadership were still at each others throats over different approaches that would satisfy the courts.

The governor wants to increase per-pupil spending; the Republicans say increase it for a while but then have each school district evaluate precisely how much it needs and adjust state spending accordingly.

Federal court's fines could hit $1.5 million a day

The money from the fines started flowing from the state's general fund to a special fund that eventually will be used for the English-teaching program, whenever one comes into being.

The judge also said that if the two sides did not reach agreement by last Friday, the fine would jump to $1 million a day. And if they fail to reach an agreement by the end of the legislative session, which is expected in early April, the fine will jump to $1.5 million a day.

Republicans are exercised about this matter because, from their point of view, the judge's action has less to do with the law than it does with helping the governor achieve her ends.

After all, they reason, why should the governor care how long the fines accumulate in a fund that will eventually go to help the school population she is avowedly interested in helping? The Republicans imply that in effect the judge has removed any impetus for the governor to negotiate in good faith.

Insulting the integrity of a federal judge this way does not help anybody's cause, of course.

The governor, a tough politician who is accustomed to playing hardball with intransigent ideologues in the Legislature, is not entirely innocent in this latest epic.

Last year, she vetoed two bills that Republicans offered as a compromise to solve the Flores case, and two more Republican-sponsored bills have already been rejected this year.

The latest bill, introduced Thursday by the Republicans, increases annual state aid for English-language learners from the current level of $355 per student to $432. The Democrats want a minimum of $667 per student.

Political gridlock could close state's schools

The Republicans distrust the governor because, they say, last spring she reneged on a compromise bill that her liaison had reviewed and agreed to support. The governor's explanation was that a mistake was made because her representative had only 20 minutes to review the bill before signing off on it.

As we noted, this battle is no longer about how to best provide educational opportunities for kids who come to school unable to speak English. It is now about who said what when, and who's will is going to prevail.

The result is political gridlock. In one sense, both sides are fortunate: The issue is so complex that it hasn't made it onto the public's radar screen. Still, that's no excuse for letting the matter fester.

Rather than imposing fines, the federal court should consider shutting down the Arizona school system until the state takes seriously the rights of minority children as spelled out in the Equal Education Opportunity Act.

Politically, this would be an extreme step, but if fines of $1 million a day aren't enough to jog politicians into action or engage the public's interest, extraordinary measures clearly are necessary.