What price English?

Budget crisis complicates bilingual funding fight

Arizona lawmakers, faced with slicing more than a billion dollars from the state budget, will likely have to pump at least $45 million a year into programs for children struggling to learn English.

If they don’t, a federal judge whose patience has been worn thin by a slow-acting Legislature may strip the state of all federal funding, a potential loss of more than $7 billion.

But some legislators said they won’t “kowtow to a federal judge.”

“We don’t have to appropriate any money,” said Rep. Eddie Farnworth, R-Gilbert. “If a vote was today, I would be a definite no.”

Lawmakers must deal with the prospect of spending millions more on a statewide “English learner” program during a special session whose main purpose is to offset a $1.5 billion budget deficit caused by the slowing economy. The Senate Education Committee will have a public meeting on the issue at 10:30 a.m. today.

The tentative plan is to address English learning first and then tackle the budget shortfall.

In a 1992 court case, Flores vs. Arizona, a judge found that existing funding failed to ensure that students would overcome language barriers. U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez concluded that the state’s system of English-learning programs was “arbitrary and capricious.” That phrase has haunted the Arizona Legislature.

In 2000, former Arizona schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan signed a consent decree that forced the Legislature’s hand. It requires legislators to pour more money into English-learner programs.

Gov. Jane Hull and the Legislature, however, didn’t take part in the decision. Legislators consider this an example of how they are forced to spend money without having any input.

The state spends about $163 per child on 150,000 students who are classified as English learners, or students who speak another language and are trying to learn English. In his ruling, Marquez wrote that there were too many students in a classroom, not enough qualified teachers and teacher aids, and insufficient teaching materials to help kids learn English.

“This judge isn’t happy with the state,” Assistant Attorney General Lynne Adams said. “He can put a real hammer over their heads if he wants to.”

Lawmakers won’t find any easy answers. Unlike allocating money for breakfast programs or algebra textbooks, teaching language skills varies from city to city. Some schools spend as little as $200 per student. Others spend more than $3,000.

“It’s so tough because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of answer,” said Arizona Schools Superintendent Jaime Molera. “We want to get children speaking English as soon as possible, but it’s a lot easier said than done.”

Despite voter approval of Proposition 203 to steer bilingual education toward immersion classes, the state remains under court order to help students overcome language barriers.

And some teachers say immersion isn’t the best way to teach children English.

“(Proposition 203) is pretty pathetic,” said Susan Kronick, a teacher at Palomino Elementary School in North Phoenix, who teaches fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. “I’m just teaching them to speak. I think we should teach them in both languages.

“Every legislator should come to my class and see this firsthand.”

The Flores debate occurs as the state faces its worst budget crisis in decades. Four bills are being pushed, ranging in annual costs from about $30 million to $250 million. And a prominent public-interest lawyer will be watching every step. Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest previously won a legal fight with the state over Students FIRST, a program that pumps more than $1 billion into facilities statewide.

“The Legislature is breaking a federal law, plain and simple,” Hogan said. “They grumble about courts telling them what to do, but they won’t do things the right way. This is the state’s main job: to educate kids.”

But some Republican lawmakers, including Farnsworth, said they will not be forced into a hasty decision.

“Essentially you have a federal judge trying to create statute from the bench,” Farnsworth said. “That’s a violation of separation of powers. I have no idea why Lisa Keegan signed the consent decree so fast. The Legislature was excluded from all that.”

A plan being pushed by Molera and Rep. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, calls for increasing the state’s funding for English learners to $330 per student from $163. It is based on a model in Texas. A key component includes using software and networked computers already being provided to every school in Arizona.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-Phoenix, has a proposal to spend about $2,000 per student, or $250 million, a year.

Hogan is skeptical that Molera’s plan would satisfy the judge’s order. He said a reasonable range to spend per student would be $1,000 to $1,200.

“It’s going to be my job to prove that $300 per kid is inadequate,” Hogan said. “And I think that will be relatively easy.”

Many Valley educators agree.

The Phoenix Union High School District spends at least $1,000 to educate its English learners, said Joan Mason, curriculum director in charge of programs for English-language learners. Phoenix Union has 23,000 students in 10 high schools who speak 34 languages.

“Three hundred dollars would be woefully inadequate,” Mason said.

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