Stop playing politics and give English learning students a chance
Arizona Republic
Feb. 15, 2006

¿Te sería difícil aprender de terremotos en una aula donde no había nadie que hablara el inglés?

We often take speaking English for granted. If you've traveled internationally, you likely experienced situations where as an English-speaker you felt lost.

In Arizona's schools, 154,000 children face the challenging transition of learning English, while simultaneously needing to meet state standards if they are to graduate. Even if you resent that the parents of some of these children aren't here legally, one of this country's most basic precepts is that children deserve equal opportunity.

We don't punish children for the acts of their parents. Most of these kids are U.S. citizens by birth, and nearly all of the rest came here when they were so young that they can't recall any other country.

It's a precept embodied in the Federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, a law that in 2000 U.S. District Court Judge Alfredo Marquis ruled Arizona failed to uphold, eight years after the Flores family filed suit on behalf of their children.

Sadly, a child who entered kindergarten in 1992 would have graduated in the class of 2005 and never seen the state live up to the law. Many of those kindergartners who were English language learners never graduated.

Offered an inadequate opportunity, many ended up unable to read well, were unsuccessful in school and dropped out. High school dropouts make up more than half of our prison population. How many of those kindergarteners now sit in jail?

I'm deeply saddened that none of our Southeast Valley Republican legislators has stood up for these children; not Rep. Laura Knaperek, not Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, and certainly not those leading the political assault like Rep.
Russell Pearce.

Sen. Karen Johnson, on automated phone calls going throughout the Valley, blames the governor for playing politics with kids. Sen. Johnson better look in the mirror.

If these legislators visited Thews Elementary in Tempe or Holmes Elementary in Mesa's District 18 represented by Pearce and Johnson, sat in the classrooms, listened to teachers and children, they would change.

The state commissioned a study from the National Conference of State Legislatures to find out what it would cost to do right by these kids. In the cross-section of school districts examined, they determined funding for ELL would have to increase from $670 extra per student ($360 currently come from state funds) to $1,200 extra for somewhat proficient students and $2,300 for students with the least proficiency in English.

The state Department of Education recently released to school districts a memo titled, "The Arizona Structured English Immersion Program."

In classrooms where typically English language learners are integrated, not segregated, from other students, it recommends for high-need students that classes have no more than 15 students per properly trained teacher and possibly a language assistant, if needed. For students with some English proficiency, class sizes could rise to 20.

When you consider that current class sizes are 20 to 22 in the early grades and often 25 or higher later, reducing class sizes would require substantial new funding. Moving from a class size of 22 to 15 costs an additional $1,000 in staffing costs alone for every student, not just English language learners.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne needs to talk with his fellow Republicans in the Legislature, because their proposals don't come remotely close to funding any of these ELL models.

I believe we all share the dream that today's kindergarten students will be successful and graduate, not end up in jail. Legislators need to stop the bickering and give these kids a future.

Dave Wells of Tempe holds a doctorate in political economy and public policy and teaches at Arizona State University. Reach him at