Sides 'getting closer' on English-learners
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 10, 2006

Napolitano, legislators meet to talk Robbie Sherwood
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 students.

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."