Friday, April 10, 2009

Inadequate Journalism: Will Money Buy Happiness in Arizona?

The Apr. 8 issue of Education Week has a story about Flores v. State of Arizona, a lawsuit that claims that school programs for English-language learners (ELLs) in the border town of Nogales receive inadequate funding from the state of Arizona. This is one of a series of school-finance lawsuits around the country seeking, in the name of "adequate funding," to have the courts determine school budgets.

Much of the long and detailed article is filled with quotations from advocates of higher spending saying that “adequate” (that is, massively higher) spending would fix the schooling of English-language learners.

But there are some details that might escape notice if they are not highlighted:

--Despite relying largely on local tax funds rather than state money (requiring more state spending is what the suit is about), four of the Nogales district’s six elementary schools ranked in the top 10 in the state for ELL performance.

--The child on whose behalf the suit was filed is now a student at the University of Arizona, having taken AP and IB courses in high school – so much for having had a blighted K-12 experience.

--An unforeseen consequence is that the lawsuit has forced Nogales and school districts around the state to alter the way they teach English-learners, including separating them for four hours each day from other students. Nogales school superintendent Shawn A. McCollough says that this court-mandated separation program constitutes "segregation" rather than "inclusion" for ELLs.

At Nogales High School, ELLs are grumbling about the required four-hour block, and some teachers oppose it as well. Many ELLs who had been taking only regular classes are being required to take four hours of English each day.

….In a class of 21 ELLs at an advanced level of proficiency in English, at least seven said they had been attending Nogales schools since kindergarten.

Maximiliano Bonorand, 16, a 10th grader who was born in Tucson but has spent his whole school career in Nogales, said he was in regular classes last school year and doesn’t think he needed the four-hour English block this school year. "I speak and write English better than Spanish," he said.

The reporter Mary Ann Zehr is on target in saying that if the suit succeeds before the U.S. Supreme Court, members of the plainiffs’ bar in other states will sue under civil-rights law in federal court, calling for states to provide “adequate funding” for ELL education.

Now let’s turn to the professional-journalism side of the article, focusing on this important issue of “adequate funding.” Let’s see whom the reporter quotes.

On the more-spending side, quotations from:

  • The plaintiffs (mother and child);
  • Roger L. Rice, the executive director of Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc., a Somerville, Mass.-based advocacy group for ELLs;
  • A U.S. circuit court judge;
  • the school improvement director for the Nogales district; and
  • two ELL teachers in the Nogales district (the number of ELL teachers has already increased three-fold in the district because of the court-mandated four-hour block).

Also listed as supporting more spending are:

  • Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest,
  • a federal district judge,
  • Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard (identified as a Democrat),
  • Gov. Janet Napolitano (identified as a Democrat), and
  • the Obama administration (which has filed an amicus brief).

On the side of opposing court-ordered spending, quotations from:

  • Nogales school superintendent Shawn A. McCollough;
  • State superintendent Tom Horne; and
  • The attorneys’ brief for the state (the article points out that the defense’s legal team includes Kenneth Starr)

Also listed as opposed:

  • Gov. Janice K. Brewer (identified as a Republican) and
  • the Republican leadership of the state legislature.

Here we have biased journalistic judgment. The reporter has lined up nonprofits, grassroots teachers-parents-and-children, and Democrats (including President Obama) on one side. She then has lined up local and state management (defended by Kenneth Starr of Monica Lewinsky fame) and Republicans on the other.

The problem with this morality play is that it leaves out any grassroots teachers, parents, and children who oppose more spending -- indeed, any taxpayer activists who are informed about Arizona education -- and any nonprofits on the other side (like the Goldwater Institute -- see its analysis here and here).

The Education Week article also fails to look at the evidence on whether spending alone boosts student achievement. Yet there was an amicus brief by stellar school-finance specialists which argued that attention in Arizona should focus on outcomes for students rather than money per se, as well as another much less impressive brief of experts for the plaintiffs.

Inadequate journalism on adequate spending.

UPDATE (4/15/09) Mark Walsh on the School Law Blog has an Apr. 13 preview on this case that covers the dueling amicus briefs from school-finance specialists.


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