Republicans offer plans to improve instruction for English-learners

PHOENIX—Republican education leaders are proposing to satisfy a court order to improve programs for students who do not use English as their primary language with plans that would nearly double state spending and rely heavily on computerized instruction.

Common elements of two GOP proposals also include creating a new training program for teachers and increasing state monitoring of districts’ compliance with federal and state demands.

U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez has ordered lawmakers to act on the English-learning issue by the end of the special session that begins Nov. 13.

The separate but overlapping plans are being offered by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jaime Molera and House Education Chairwoman Linda Gray, R-Glendale. Under Gray’s plan, supplemental state-aid for English-learning students would rise to $331 per student from the current $163. Molera’s would hike it to $300 per student.

Each plan is estimated to cost $30 million to $35 million annually.

Gray disclosed hers in a letter to fellow lawmakers, while a top Molera aide outlined his plan in an interview with The Associated Press.

Gov. Jane Hull endorsed Molera’s proposal late Thursday after Molera aides delivered a written proposal to the Legislature.

Some lawmakers have said much more spending is needed to comply with the court order. One Democratic legislator has called for more than $240 million in new spending annually to raise the per-student payments to $2,000.

Supporters of the Molera and Gray plans said they would comply with a federal judge’s order and requirements in federal laws on equal opportunities in education.

“Certainly the judge may look at it differently, but we think that it’s a defensible plan and a different plan than he would have anticipated,” said Associate Superintendent Chuck Essigs. “I don’t think he would have anticipated the teacher training and the technology components. He was looking at money going to the school districts.”

A lawyer for parents whose lawsuit produced the judge’s order said the plans represent “political numbers” on new spending acceptable to lawmakers during the state’s current budget troubles.

“They figure out what they want to spend,” said attorney Tim Hogan said. “I think they’re just interested in putting something out of (the Legislature), once again making the most minimal effort possible, forcing me to go back to court, buying some time in the process.”

Legislators will meet in special session starting Nov. 13 to act on the education issue and the budget. The state faces a $675 million shortfall in the current fiscal year and a larger one in the year beginning next July 1.

Gray’s letter said her spending plan was based on costs of the Nogales Unified School District.

Essigs said Molera built his proposal on funding provided to students in Texas, “which is recognized as having good programs.”

Texas does not offer all the items listed by Molera such as teacher training and technology, but Arizona is already providing schools with networked computers that can be used to improve English instruction, Essigs said. That’s a major expenditure that doesn’t have to be made twice, he said.

Senate Republican Leader Ken Bennett of Prescott, said funding must be well-founded in costs for specific needs in smaller classes, additional staff and other improvements.

“The judge is going to ask what number did you pick and why,” Bennett said. “We can’t pick the number of what we can afford. We can’t pick the number any other way than to say this needs to be done.”

However, overall funding for English-learners also includes the $4,017-per-student basic state aid provided districts and charter schools for all students, not just those with special needs, said Bennett a former Senate Education Committee chairman. Some of that money can be “reprioritized” to improve the special instruction, he said.

Senate Democratic Whip Pete Rios of Hayden said both plans fall short. “It’s clear that the Republicans are trying to get off on the cheap side,” he said.

The funding issue follows last year’s voter approval of a ballot measure to move some English-learning students out of traditional bilingual education programs into shorter-term “immersion” programs.

Marquez has said the state still needs to bolster both types of programs.

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