State must find way to help our kids learn English
Arizona Governor
Mar. 5, 2006

Janet Napolitano

There are many components to a successful program that teaches children to speak, read, write and learn in English. Parents and families must be involved; teachers must be trained to work with English-language-learner students; students must be allowed extra time on task; and teachers must have smaller class sizes.

Ultimately, these students must participate in a program that ensures not only that they learn to speak English, but that they learn the language well enough to allow them to study math, science, geography - the subjects they must master to succeed in school and become productive members of our state's workforce.

These children are potential scientists, doctors, technology wizards and more. What a shame if language were the only barrier to their achievement.

This past summer, the Democratic leadership and I worked with parents, educators and administrators from around the state to craft a bill that would develop successful English-learner programs. This bill required instruction in both language and academic development; invested time, money and expectations in teachers; required schools to do a better job of reaching out to parents, families and the community; and required the millions of dollars spent every year on private-sector vendors to go only to those who are certified effective.

In sum, the comprehensive proposal I offered last summer and again this legislative session had reasonable funding, accountability for both spending and students, and required the state to pay attention so that the program did not once again fall into disarray.

Unfortunately, House Bill 2064, the bill forwarded to me last week by the Arizona Legislature, adopts few of these principles.

However, after difficult deliberation, I allowed this bill to become law without my signature. It was not a decision I made lightly.

Despite my efforts to negotiate a solid English-learner bill - one that not only satisfies the court, but actually works - the Legislature has sent to me a measure that does not satisfy our needs.

And although it was tempting to veto this bill for the fourth time, I decided that the Legislature would do no more without judicial intervention.

Because English-language acquisition affects the lives of thousands of children, I believe the wisest path is to place this legislation before the court now.

You see, time is not on the side of children in school waiting for this dispute to be resolved. Every school year that passes is a lost opportunity, and many have passed with little to no progress. In 1992, Flores vs. Arizona was filed in federal court.

In 2000, the court decided that English-learner education in Arizona did not meet the standards set by the Equal Education Opportunity Act and directed the state to do a number of things that would give students an adequate learning environment.

The dismissive nature of the Legislature toward these mandates has taken us to where we are today: The state has now accumulated court-ordered fines of at least $21 million.

Though I am relieved that those fines will go to schools, I am disappointed that the past six years didn't go to better use.

We need real English-learner programs that have been proven effective; that allow the people who know how to teach English to children to be involved in the process; we need to fund curricula that work, and we need data and research to guide future decision-making.

I intend to fight, in court and in the context of the fiscal 2007 budget bill, to get us to a better place.

Janet Napolitano is governor of Arizona.