Private schools for English learners? Ha!
Arizona Republic
Jan. 30, 2006

The Republicans' plan to place English learners in private schools would work great except for a couple of things:

The first is there are apparently no private schools in Arizona that can start accepting large numbers of English learners.

The second is most students learning English wouldn't be able to get to any such private schools if they did exist.

Still, House Speaker Jim Weiers and Senate President Ken Bennett are insistent that any English-learner plan includes some type of provision that gives kids a scholarship to attend private schools.

But when asked whether they had heard from any private schools willing to accept English learners, the lawmakers said no.

Bennett expected some would spring up if the plan for a tax credit-funded scholarship program passed. "The market is a pretty strong force," Bennett said during a news conference last week. "If there's a reason for a service to be provided . . . usually people will step forward and provide that service."

Except in some of the poorer, Spanish-speaking neighborhoods in Phoenix. There the concept of "school choice" is pretty much a myth.

Right now, parents in neighborhoods in south and west Phoenix have a free school-choice program that would allow them to move their students to better-performing campuses. It doesn't happen.

Both the Isaac School District and the Roosevelt School Districts have high concentrations of English learners and have open enrollment, letting parents send their kids to campuses the next neighborhood over.

You would think that the better-performing schools would have high attendance and kids would be fleeing the failing schools. But officials at those districts say that's not the case. Even under-performing schools are showing gains in attendance.

That means there must be some other barrier, other than money, keeping these kids at these schools.

Like maybe their parents need their kid to walk, bike or take the school bus, rather than be driven. Even a neighborhood over.

Any private school that wants to take English learners might also have to provide a taxi service.

And for now, private schools that specialize in teaching English-learning students are pretty much a myth.

MaryBeth Mueller, superintendent of the Phoenix Diocese schools, said the schools accept English-learner students, but have very few. "We're talking 2 percent, 1 percent" in the inner-city schools, she said.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, those schools are able to draw on public school resources to teach those students English, Mueller said.

The Catholic schools don't necessarily refuse a child who doesn't know English. It's just that they aren't set up to deal with a bunch of them, Mueller said.

If the schools were met with a crush of students wanting to learn English - say because of a tax credit scholarship program - the schools would have to see if they could transform themselves quickly enough to accept the new kids, or deny them admission, Mueller said.

"We want to make sure we can meet their needs," she said.

In Tucson, the Green Fields Country Day School currently has two English learners, said Gerald Barkan, the school's headmaster. Parents are charged a few thousand extra for a part-time tutor, Barkan said.

He said the school could not currently handle a new batch of English learners but would look into changing itself should the tax-credit program pass. Barkan said it would be a complicated question, involving more than just money.

For now, though, there are no private schools in Arizona set up to teach English to significant numbers of students and no way to get students to those schools if they existed.

Other than that, the Republicans have a great plan.

Reach Ruelas at (602) 444-8473 or