Bilingual Costs Soar For Schools

District superintendents want to know who pays the bill for ELL students


It looks like the Payson Unified School District will have to somehow find an additional $350,000 to comply with the new English Language Learners program.

Arizona legislators are once again saying the state is likely to have problems approving more education funding for the 2008-2009 school year than the $54 million they approved last year.

In the meantime, the Payson school district has to hire more teachers, provide more classroom space and materials, among other new requirements, or face Arizona Department of Education penalties for not complying with a state task force's new ELL model.

Implementing the new model would cost the Payson Unified School District a projected $565,000 and without increased funding from the state, that means the district would have to come up with an additional $350,000 to cover the costs of accommodating 84 English Language Learners in the district under the new model, if the state fails to pay for it as the law stipulates, said Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O'Brien.

"We will plan to implement the task force model, we have no choice. It's the law and ADE (Arizona Department of Education) has indicated that they may impose financial sanctions on districts out of compliance," said O'Brien.

"I am optimistic that a compromise can be reached in the next few months that generates a more realistic and affordable solution to this very real problem."

The ELL program requires schools in the state to teach four hours of English to students who aren't proficient in English.

However, the legislature has consistently failed to adequately fund the program, despite court sanctions and pleas from district superintendents, effectively discriminating against Hispanic students, supporters of the program have complained.

A new model adopted this year by a state task force would raise the already prohibitive cost of the ELL program.

District officials said the additional $350,000 is because they will need to hire four new teachers for English Language Learners, as well as operational costs like program overview and classroom materials.

The Payson School District spends $215,000 annually for its 84 ELL students, but receives only $35,000 in state funding.

The district spends $2,559 per student to teach English Language Learners, but gets only $420 per student every year from the state.

Out of a total student population of 2,600, only 84 are English Language Learners.

Those 84 students attend special English classes, requiring additional teachers and operational costs.

The new model which requires the district to hire four more teachers and provide classrooms and materials for ELL students will boost their per-student cost to an average of nearly $6,800 per ELL student, according to district figures.

O'Brien and other superintendents in Arizona want to know where the money to implement the new ELL model will come from.

Arizona's Republican Education Committee Chairman, Representative Mark Anderson said the legislature will likely have trouble allocating more than the $54 million they gave to education last year.

"The reality of the situation is that the amount we approve will probably be a little more than last year, but not what they (school districts) are asking for," said Anderson.

The root of the problem dates back to at least 2000 when former U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez ruled that Arizona underfunds ELL programs, leaving the state's more than 133,000 ELL students at that time without the skills they needed to succeed in school.

The debate became more heated in 2006 when the Arizona legislature adopted an ELL law to comply with federal court requirements, however the courts later repealed lawmakers' solutions.

At that time, federal courts ordered Arizona lawmakers to come up with a solution to funding the program, but they failed to do so.

As a result of that failure, U.S. District Judge Raner Collins of Tucson imposed $21 million in sanctions.

In 2007, Collins again ordered the Arizona legislature to come up with a funding solution before the end of the session.

Lawmakers instead requested a stay, which Collins denied on June 25.

The major complaint from school districts in Arizona is that the failure of the state to fully fund the ELL program places an unfair burden on districts to come up with money they don't have in their budgets, and that as a result, all students suffer.

In 2007, a task force created by the 2006 legislation adopted an ELL model that complies with federal requirements and is scheduled to go into effect for the 2008 school year.

Part of that new model and law requires that the state fully fund the program.

Right now, the state's cost for ELL services is about $54 million, but the new model raises the total to around $350 million.

Superintendents in Arizona want to know who will to pay the bill.

The issue is not new to Payson, in 2006 Superintendent of Payson Schools Sue Myers said the program placed an unfair burden on Payson's historically underfunded education budget.

"We can't spend it if we don't have it, but the money is needed," said Myers.

In 2006 the Payson School District received $358 annually per student, which rose to $420 in 2007, however districts spend an average of $2,741 per ELL student annually to meet state and federal program requirements.

In the past, the Payson District has taken money from maintenance and operations to cover the additional costs.

ELL teachers are not paid from a separate fund, their salaries come from the district's regular budget allotment for teacher salaries, and if they have to hire more ELL teachers and the state again fails to fully fund the changes, the added salaries might have to come from the maintenance and operation budget.

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