Resolving 'Flores' case helps students, Arizona
Arizona Republic
Jan. 26, 2006

Let's get back to basics on English-language instruction: the kids.

Arizona's students need a firm grasp of English to succeed.

And the Legislature has yet to pass a bill that will do the job. Lawmakers came up with a plan this week that has miles of red tape, millions of dollars for administrative expenses and a heaping dose of agenda-driven policy, including an inappropriate tuition tax credit.

The bill legislators passed on Monday, and the revised version on Tuesday, fell so far short of the mark that Gov. Janet Napolitano pulled out her veto stamp. Twice.

And now Arizona is being hit with $500,000-a-day fines for failing to meet a federal judge's deadline to provide adequate English-language instruction.
The amount could ratchet to as high as $2 million daily if the state continues to dally.

What a mess.

Average Arizonans can only scratch their heads and wonder: Can't we all get along? At least long enough to provide reasonable funding for an effective program of teaching English to Arizona students.

Napolitano has told Republican leaders that she's keeping the Legislature in special session until it passes a bill she can allow to go into law.

Meanwhile the Democratic governor has filed a legal request asking the judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Raner Collins, to put the state fines into a fund for English-language instruction. At least the money will eventually go to a good cause.

Unfortunately, ideological differences and the divisive question of illegal immigration are clouding what should be an educational issue.

Time out for a reality check:

Reality No. 1: Arizona has more than 150,000 students who don't speak English well enough to do their coursework.

Reality No. 2: These students are a big part of our future workforce. Right now, a lot of them are likely to drop out. Arizona's future will be a lot brighter, and we'll have a better competitive edge, if English-language learners achieve a high level of education.

Reality No. 3: The state has a legal obligation to educate all Arizona children regardless of immigration status. In any case, most of our children who need to learn English are citizens, often from birth.

Back in 1992, in Flores vs. Arizona, a Nogales family sued the state for failing to provide adequate English instruction. In 2000, Judge Collins ruled in their favor. While the state nearly doubled its per student spending on English-language instruction, to the current level of $355, Collins ordered Arizona to do a better job.

Obviously we aren't there yet.

Last year, the Legislature came up with a last-minute slapdash plan that got the veto it deserved. And now, two more attempts have gotten a veto.

GOP leaders argue that Napolitano should sign their bill and let the judge decide if it's adequate. But it would be a sorry tactic for the governor to approve a clearly flawed measure in the hopes of slipping it through and getting the courts off our backs.

Let's get back to the basics. Focus on the kids and overcome the stumbling blocks.

Napolitano should consider retooling the financial structure of her proposal and listen carefully to legislators' legitimate concerns about ensuring that the money is spent effectively.

She's calling for a steep hike in per-pupil funding: $667 in fiscal 2007, for a total cost of $43 million, and rising to almost double that amount two years later.

The Republican plan, meanwhile, has some serious flaws. It puts too little money into language instruction, about $24 million, and sets up a system of grants, which schools can apply for only after tapping into other funds, including federal money earmarked for poor students. The bill would pour $7 million into auditing, testing and administration, money far better used in the classroom.

Both versions of the GOP's English-language bill included a tuition tax credit so that individuals and companies could donate to scholarship funds to send English-language learners to private schools. This is a back-door way for advocates of tuition tax credits to expand the program. It has little to do with teaching English; indeed, the bill makes no requirement that the private-school students show any sign of learning English.

The millions of dollars that tax credits would siphon out of the state budget would be best spent directly on language instruction.

While requiring zero accountability for private schools, lawmakers added so many reporting requirements on the public side that you'd think the goal was to increase school administration, not language instruction.

The micromanaging includes a goofy requirement for the state to do monthly testing of 300 randomly chosen students, including a check on whether they can read the letters of the alphabet, in random order, in 30 seconds or less.

Arizona needs a serious push to ensure that every student has a good grasp of English.

Many lawmakers recognize that goal is crucial to our future.

But too many have focused their energy on scoring points against Napolitano and venting their anger at the intervention of a federal judge.

The governor says she's willing to sit down and negotiate. House Speaker Jim Weiers and Senate President Ken Bennett say they are, too.

Now they need to find a table, pull up some chairs and work on the basic business of teaching our kids.