Napolitano, GOP at odds after court ruling on English instruction
Associated Press
Dec. 21, 2005

A federal judge is ordering the state to improve its instruction of students learning the English language, but Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano and Republican legislative leaders are at odds on how to do that.

While top GOP leaders have said they're not willing to give school districts more money without setting up new systems to determine if more money is needed and would be wisely used, Napolitano said Wednesday that complying with the court order "just requires more funding."

U.S. District Judge Raner Collins on Friday ordered the state to provide adequate funding of English Language Learning programs. The judge also hit the state with daily fines starting at $500,000 and ultimately rising to $2 million if it doesn't act by specified deadlines during the Legislature's upcoming regular session.

Collins' order referred to another judge's previous order that cited class sizes, lack of trained teachers and other shortcomings, but the latest order doesn't spell out what the state needs to bring the ELL programs into compliance.

The Republicans and Napolitano, with backing from Democratic lawmakers, each have offered plans. So far, neither side has showed signs of publicly moving toward the other.

Right after Collins ruled Friday, the Republicans appeared to stake out firm ground on the issue, saying they planned to seek early passage of legislation similar to a bill that passed last spring but which Napolitano vetoed after adjournment.

The Republican bill, which already has been prefiled in the House for 2006 consideration, would scrap the current system of providing school districts with extra dollars for each ELL student. Instead, districts would have to report what funding they need for their ELL programs and what dollars they have available. The state would then provide grants to fill in funding gaps.

Napolitano's plan overlaps with the Republican proposal in some accountability provisions, including state monitoring of schools' spending, but continues to use the current system of per-student funding while phasing in increases over three years when the overall cost would reach approximately $200 million. That's more than triple current spending.

Democratic critics of the Republican plan say it wouldn't satisfy the court because funding wouldn't be assured. Republicans counter that they won't back off from demanding that state funding be based on actual, demonstrated need.

"There's some issues that we can improve upon, but if you're looking at changing the philosophy of accountability, to be thrown out simply by throwing more money and making that problem more expensive, no, not going to do it," said House Speaker Jim Weiers.

During weekly news conference Wednesday, Napolitano suggested that Republicans might prove to be more flexible than their initial comments indicated.

"What I have learned is that people say a lot of things in the immediate aftermath of a court ruling or what have you, but reason needs to prevail, common sense needs to prevail," she said. "We need to understand that what this is about is having an English-speaking work force and that just requires more funding in the system than we currently are providing."

"That's what the schools tell us, that's what employers tell us and that's what we need to be working towards, and the method by which that is given out, in my view, really needs to deal with certainty in the out years, not just in the first year," she added.

A Democratic lawmaker who with 22 colleagues has prefiled a version of Napolitano's plan for 2006 consideration said one outcome could be that the Legislature would pass the GOP-drafted plan and that Napolitano would let it become law without her signature. Then, the lawsuit plaintiffs would go to court to challenge its adequacy, Rep. David Lujan said.

"What the Republicans have put out there in terms of a funding plan is far below what is necessary, so I think we all know what the federal judge's response is going to be when he reviews it," Lujan said.