Lawmakers shooting for fall special session on bilingual education

PHOENIX—Some legislators are shooting for a fall special session to bolster programs for English-learning students.

A Jan. 30 deadline set by a federal judge for legislative action follows uncomfortably close after the Jan. 14 start of the 2002 regular session, lawmakers said Wednesday.

“I don’t think we can wait until the regular session,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Ken Bennett, R-Prescott.

Bennett and other legislators working on the issue said they need time to come up with a plan that will satisfy the judge and also sell it to colleagues who know only that their constituents voted in November to restrict bilingual education.

However, they said the issue also can’t wait too long because otherwise the Legislature could run up against the Jan. 30 deadline.

The first attempt may very well fail, said Sen. Pete Rios, D-Hayden. “That’s why I want the two or three months before January.”

Lawmakers last month began talks aimed at preparing a plan to comply with orders by U.S. District Judge Alfredo C. Marquez. He has ruled in a lawsuit filed by Nogales parents that Arizona’s current programs for English-learners are inadequate and violate federal laws on equal opportunities in education.

“This is a civil rights issue. It’s not a bilingual education issue,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Ruth Solomon, D-Tucson.

Marquez on Friday said he will set a Jan. 30 deadline for action by the Legislature but also said the issue must be included in any special session before January.

Solomon and the other lawmakers said they want to come up a plan that provides more money while providing both local control and accountability.

Already, legislators and others participating in the talks were at odds over such issues as whether state funding can be reduced to reflect other money which local districts have available from federal aid or local property taxes for desegregation programs.

“You could look at it as an available resource,” state Deputy Superintendent Chuck Essigs said of desegregation dollars.

Rios and Solomon warned that deductions from state funding for other sources could embroil the state in further court fights over equal protection under the law.

Another likely point of tension involves Proposition 203, the ballot measure approved in November. It generally requires that English-learning students be placed in one-year English immersion programs but still allows students to remain in more traditional bilingual education classes voluntarily.

Supporters of Proposition 203 said many students were languishing in bilingual education classes, while critics said students rushed through immersion programs would be left without a sound academic foundation.

Under a voter-protection law enacted in 1998, any proposed legislation that changes Proposition 203 would require a three-fourths vote of each chamber of the Legislature.

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