Prudent, economical steps needed to fix language woes
Arizona Republic
Feb. 5, 2006


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That's the school day for too many Arizona kids: gibberish. Because they need to learn English.

And too many schools are failing to do the job well enough or fast enough.

Unfortunately, the prospects for improvement are pinned down in the crossfire between Gov. Janet Napolitano and Republican legislative leaders.

The Legislature has passed three flawed plans to meet a court order to provide adequate language instruction to about 150,000 students who don't know English. Napolitano vetoed all three bills. Now the state is racking up legal fines of $500,000 a day. Fortunately, the judge agreed to set aside the money for English-language instruction.

Now the two sides are trading memos. The pace of progress is about the same as a desert tortoise lumbering from Phoenix to Tucson.

To push the accelerator, here's the basic structure that both sides should work from.

 Drop tuition tax credits from the English-language package. House Speaker Jim Weiers and Senate President Ken Bennett insist that the credits are inseparable from the core principle of school choice. Not for everyone.

Plenty of moderate Republicans oppose siphoning money out of the state General Fund, which pays for public schools, and into private schools. They know that Arizona is a national leader in school choice through our charter schools. The credits can be taken up elsewhere this session.

 Give schools stronger guidance, including models of effective programs. The Legislature has the right idea in trying to set up a system to identify programs that work. And then make them models.

The state Department of Education has done a first draft of developing model programs. But they need to be more detailed and practical.

Success stories like Lela Alston Elementary, in Phoenix's Isaac District, should be analyzed. The ingredients include lots of professional development, a teacher coach, supplementary materials, visual aids to support the lessons, smaller classes, targeted individual instruction and academically based after-school programs.

The state must also have staff to show schools how to put the models to work, much like the "solutions teams" that are showing failing schools how to get on track.

Fortunately, Napolitano and the Legislature seem to be inching closer on the issue of guidance, but they need to thrash out questions like who's in charge of adopting the models.

 Sharpen the accountability. The Legislature's solution is to add reams of red tape. Napolitano, at the opposite extreme, is a bit too ready to write checks without making sure the money is used well.

Surely there's a middle ground.

 Provide the money and resources. Republican leaders are pushing to make sure as much federal money as possible, mostly the Title 1 money allocated for poor students, goes into language instruction. Some schools may need to direct their resources more efficiently, but let's not delude ourselves: This isn't putting any more money into the pot.

The Legislature has to put up a realistic sum of money. Not the puny $24 million it proposed to put into the classroom for fiscal 2007.

Adopting truly effective programs will certainly require a substantial investment. The Department of Education's model for first-year language learners is a classroom capped at 15 students, with two aides to help the teacher, a much pricier proposition than the typical class of 26 kids with a single instructor.

Part of Alston Elementary's success comes from a three-year annual grant of $122,000. That works out to more than $500 a year per English-language pupil.

The steep increases that Napolitano is seeking - $667 in fiscal 2007, for a total cost of $43 million, and rising to almost double that two years later - are closer to the real cost of doing the job right.

But the numbers should be re-evaluated when we have a better handle on how best to put our dollars to work.

As one Capitol observer noted, Napolitano and GOP leaders are coming at the money from two different angles.

The governor's calculating how much Arizona has to spend to comply with the court order, while Republicans are figuring how little we can spend to get the judge off our back.

We need to be economical, not cheap.

It's a bit like a problem with the plumbing. A cut-rate repair may work for a while. But if a pipe bursts, there will be enormous bills ahead.

The kids in the classroom today are Arizona's workforce in the future. If they all get the language skills they need, they'll be more likely to stay in school. More likely to go to college. And more of an asset to Arizona's economy.