The pint-size pupils formed a semicircle around Maricela Garay at the Phoenix Advantage Charter School, shouting out the days of the week in perfect unison.
The children, who couldn’t speak a word of English a year ago, use “scarf”
and “hat” in complete sentences without hesitation. Garay asks: “If today is Friday, what day is tomorrow?” They answer: “Saturday” with a slight accent.
The school’s use of “sheltered immersion” is touted as a statewide model of success, costing less than $200 per student to teach children how to speak English. Some other schools in Arizona spend more than $4,000 for the same job.
That disparity will be a headache that state lawmakers will try to cure this summer.
On Tuesday, a prominent public interest lawyer stepped up his legal fight to have the Legislature spend more money on these programs by Aug. 1. If they don’t, Phoenix attorney Tim Hogan said he will ask the judge to strip Arizona of its federal funding — a potential loss of about $7 billion.
It’s not an idle threat.
Hogan, of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, forced the state to its knees over unequal school construction financing. The result of that fight was Students FIRST, a program that pumps more than $1 billion into facilities statewide.
“They are basically ignoring these kids, and yet we expect them to learn English and pass AIMS,” said Hogan, referring to the controversial high school graduation exam.
“This is a hugely important issue, and the Legislature keeps blowing it off. How are these kids going to have a chance? They either have to make cuts or raise taxes.”
A federal judge, whose patience is being worn thin by a slow-acting Legislature, has ruled that Arizona hasn’t pumped enough money into teaching youngsters how to overcome language barriers. Hogan estimates the state will probably have to spend an additional $130 million, about $1,150 per student,
to satisfy the judge’s ruling.
Some schools already spend more than that amount.
Busload of variables
Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t come with a textbook answer.
There are a busload of variables, including the demographics of a district,
the number of teachers, class size and how English is taught to immigrant children.
A recent Arizona Department of Education cost study mandated by federal Judge Alfredo Marquez is proof of that. Some say it raises more questions than answers. Included are mounds of data comparing how much school districts spend to educate non-English-speaking students. In education-speak, they are called
The report, which cost $213,000, contains no conclusions or recommendations, just a price range from $0 to $4,600.
“I’m very, very disappointed” in the study, said Sen. Ruth Solomon,
D-Tucson, who heads the Senate Appropriation Committee. “This makes it worse than it was before.”
The one underlying conclusion: There are no definitive conclusions.
Despite voter approval of Proposition 203 to steer bilingual education to immersion classes, the state remains under court order to help students overcome language barriers.
Jaime Molera, Arizona’s newly appointed schools chief, was candid about the challenges his office faces.
“There’s still a lot of questions remaining with this cost study,” said Molera, a former top aide to Gov. Jane Hull.
“Bilingual education needs to be fixed. Even a lot of Hispanic voters voted for Prop. 203 because they were frustrated. We’re going to be giving this top priority.”
Act before judge does
Some lawmakers want to act before Arizona is entangled in another court case that could wreak havoc in an already precarious state budget.
Solomon has formed a group of legislators that will start meeting next week to craft a compromise. She wants the Legislature to convene in July to fix the problem.
“We would be derelict if there wasn’t a special session this summer,”
said Solomon, a Tucson school teacher for 28 years.
“If the judge takes away our federal aid, we would deserve it. If that meant there would be a tax increase to pay for it, we would deserve it.”
Solomon and her colleagues face a tall task.
Unlike allocating money for breakfast programs or algebra textbooks,
teaching language skills is a unique endeavor from city to city. Folks on the frontlines, such as Jesus Escarcega, who oversees special projects at the Washington Elementary School District, said there are no “universal models”
for teaching English.
“It ranges from district to district and school to school, sometimes even class to class” Escarcega said. “You have to look at the needs of their kids,
the level of poverty and the existing staff. You have to look at each community as unique.”
A January report by Senate Democrats estimates that it would cost an additional $170 million a year to meet the court’s demands. Some Republicans remain skeptical of those cost estimates. State taxpayers now spend between
$20 million and $41 million on bilingual-education programs.
Flores vs. Arizona
The 1992 case Flores vs. Arizona found that current funding wasn’t enough to ensure that students overcame language barriers. The case is an extension of the Equal Education Opportunity Act of 1974, a federal law that prohibits states from denying education opportunities based on race, color, sex or national origin.
Currently, Arizona spends about $150 on every student who is classified as an “English learner.” The Democrat study says about $1,500 per student would fulfill the judge’s ruling.
There are between 125,000 and 146,000 bilingual students in Arizona.
Judge Marquez also criticized crowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers and teacher aides. In March, lawmakers removed $30 million from the state budget intended to help comply with the Flores lawsuit because of plummeting state revenue projects.
Big mistake, Hogan said.
“They didn’t put a dime in the budget for this. They’re continuing to fund it at a level the court has found illegal.”
Back at Phoenix Advantage, the chatter of students in the hallway is a bigger concern than bickering at the Capitol.
“We do with what we have and somehow get by,” said Jenise Fox, assistant director of instruction. “But we could always use more funding. Basically,
we will teach them if we get more money or not.”
There are several ways schools teach students who are new to English:
* Bilingual/bicultural: A program that uses two languages, one of which is English, for instructional purposes. The native language of the student is developed in addition to English. Lessons include history and culture of Arizona, the United States and cultures of native country.
* Dual language program: This bilingual program allows students to learn English and another language in a classroom that is made up of both English speakers and speakers of the other language.
* English as a second language (ESL): Involves little or no use of the native language and is usually taught during specific school periods.
* Homogenous grouping: Students are grouped according to English proficiency and/or reading ability. Sometimes all the students in the group share the same native language.
* Structured English immersion: Teaching non-English-speaking students English without relying on the students’ native language.
Source: Arizona Department of Education.
(2) Charting the costs Elementary and high school districts across the state have a wide range in costs for helping students overcome language barriers. Here’s a sample:
* Agua Fria Union High School District — $3,818 per student.
* Alhambra Elementary School District — $97 per student.
* Bonita Elementary School District — $4,147 per student.
* Bowie Unified School District — $2,322 per student.
* Phoenix Advantage Charter School — $192 per student.
* Glendale Union High School District — $1,023 per student.
* Kingman Elementary School District — $1,889 per student.
* Scottsdale Unified School District — $788 per student.
* Tucson Unified School District — $193 per student.