While daily court fines reached $8 million, the icy stalemate over how best
to improve instruction for schoolchildren who don't speak English thawed
considerably Thursday as Gov. Janet Napolitano and legislative leaders met
to discuss a compromise.
Republican leaders and Napolitano did not reach a deal in the two-hour
closed-door meeting, but all involved described the negotiations as civil
and productive. That is an encouraging sign after weeks of heated criticism,
posturing and negotiation through letters and press conferences.
"It was a good session, very substantive," Napolitano said. "We were able to
identify some areas where we may be reaching some agreement."
Arizona is under a 6-year-old federal court order to improve instruction
for more than 154,000 English-language learners in public schools. U.S.
District Court Judge Raner Collins has ordered daily fines of $500,000 to
force Arizona leaders to produce a plan, a prospect that could cost up to
$180 million a year.
Students struggling to learn English have contributed to Arizona's high
dropout rate and sparked the class-action lawsuit Flores vs. Arizona
14 years ago.
Napolitano has sparked animosity by twice vetoing a Republican-backed grant
plan that included corporate tuition tax credits to help English learners
leave public schools for private schools. House Speaker Jim Weiers said the
negotiators, which included House and Senate Democrat leaders, did not talk
about the school-choice measure Thursday but made progress in other areas.
"We're still apart, but we're getting closer," he said. "We still have some
differences when it comes to philosophy, but I believe that the governor has
moved a great deal.
"We accepted the fact that we do have differences, and now we're looking to
solutions that will bridge those differences into something that will work."
Napolitano submitted a proposal earlier this month that would spend about
$45 million this year, eventually growing to about $185 million. The money
could be adjusted pending the outcome of a new cost study.
She then put forth another proposal that incorporated some of the GOP-backed
accountability measures and other items from their bill. Weiers and Senate
President Ken Bennett had, until Thursday, been dismissive of Napolitano's
efforts, calling them "a step backward."
The Republican plan would increase spending by $31 million for one year but
would then become a grant program with no known price tag because schools
would first have to devote federal funds to the programs before they could
ask for state help. Arizona spends about $55 million on English-learner
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne also sat in on the meeting
and was buoyed by what he heard.
"I think they are really moving," he said. "The two sides are reasonable
with each other, and that's a very good sign."