PHOENIX—Legislators trying to avoid court-ordered sanctions by bolstering state programs for English-learning students will consider providing additional money to districts on a case-by-case basis.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, other state officials and education advocates assembled Wednesday for the first time, saying they want the state to do more while admitting money will be hard to come by.
“I have no objection to spending significant dollars but we have to recognize the political reality,” Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Ruth Solomon said. “We do not have a blank check.”
Chuck Essigs, a Mesa school administrator recently appointed as deputy state superintendent for public instruction, said a combination of local, state and federal funding provides school districts statewide with an average of $1,000 per year for each English-learning student.
Because some districts have more and others less than the average, “a formula (increase) may not work here,” Essigs said.
He suggested a grant program in which districts would request additional state funding. Each district would have to demonstrate a need for more than the state’s current $150 per student.
“You get the money to the people that need it,” Essigs said.
Legislators began exploring other possible common ground, some suggesting a need for state-imposed standards for districts’ programs while others expressing reluctance to mandate one-size-fits-all approaches.
“It flies in the face of local control,” said Senate Education Chairman Ken Bennett, R-Prescott.
Solomon, D-Tucson, and House Majority Leader Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale, organized the group in response to a court order that the state’s current programs for English-learners do not satisfy federal laws guaranteeing equal opportunities to education.
The plaintiffs in the court case that led to the order have asked the judge to set an Aug. 1 deadline for the state to act or face possible sanctions such as loss of federal highway dollars.
The adequacy of Arizona’s programs for English-learners has been debated for years, but lawmakers have not agreed on what to do about it and included no funding increase in the new two-year budget.
“It’s time for us to bite the bullet,” Solomon said. “In some way we have to convince the court before they take some Draconian action.”
Lawmakers spent months awaiting a study by state-hired consultants on the costs of successful programs for English-learners.
The study found a huge range – $192 to $3,067 – in per-student costs of five such successful programs in Arizona and other states.
The study is no help, Solomon said. “The report has such a wide range, you could make any argument for any program or any amount.”