Arizona faces new penalties over teaching English learners

Amanda J. Crawford
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 26, 2007 12:00 AM

Arizona could again face financial sanctions for failing to provide adequate funding to teach English to an estimated 160,000 schoolchildren struggling to learn the language.

On Monday, a federal District Court judge refused to put on hold his March order that the state revamp its funding scheme for English-language learner programs by the end of the legislative session. Lawmakers adjourned last week without addressing the issue, instead seeking a stay of the order and holding out hope that a higher court would side with them on appeal.

Monday's ruling means legislative leaders could be held in contempt of court and the state could again face millions of dollars in fines for failing to act to settle the 15-year-old dispute. This fall, yet another class of Arizona schoolchildren will enroll in classrooms, and English-learner programs will be financially strapped as schools struggle to comply with federal law, teachers and school officials say.

Tim Hogan, plaintiffs attorney with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, said he will likely ask the judge soon to impose financial sanctions or other penalties against lawmakers.

"They knew they were under the order to comply with this for three months, but they went ahead and adjourned," Hogan said. "It is blatant. They are just kind of casually dismissing this whole thing. . . . It means we are going to have another school year without adequately funded programs in place."


State has obligations

The case, Flores vs. Arizona, was filed in 1992 and centers on whether the state is meeting its obligations under federal law to help children learn English.

Since 2000, state leaders have been working to revamp funding for the programs in plans repeatedly struck down by the court. Last year, U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins fined the state $1 million a day for failing to act. The fines were struck down on appeal.

The most recent attempt by lawmakers to get out from under the lawsuit was struck down by Collins in March. Lawmakers appropriated $14.3 million, contingent on his OK and created a task force to study teaching models. Collins ruled that the funding amount was arbitrary and said the requirements that schools first use federal funds to pay for the programs ran afoul of federal law. He gave lawmakers until adjournment to correct it or face sanctions again.

Legislative leaders and Tom Horne, the state's superintendent of public instruction, have appealed that decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Last week, the leaders and Horne also sought a stay to halt any sanctions by Collins, a request likely not to be ruled on until next month.

Barrett Marson, spokesman for House Republicans, noted that lawmakers have fought Collins' sanctions before and won.

"We have a lot of faith in the 9th Circuit, that they will see that the Legislature has done a lot of work on this issue and continues to do a lot of work," Marson said. He said the House leadership is prepared to accept and act on the recommendations of the task force developing the program models.

The 2007-08 state budget approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Janet Napolitano on Monday has no additional funding for the programs beyond the amount already rejected by the judge.


Learning is bottom line

Rep. David Lujan, a Democrat who also is president of the governing board of the Phoenix Union High School District, said that lawmakers have had plenty of evidence, studies and time but that Republican leaders refuse to allot the money necessary. He noted that because schools must teach English regardless of state money, they end up taking money from other programs, which hurts all students.

"The bottom line is we need to provide the funds to provide a proper education for these students and, until we do so, we are going to lose generation after generation of these students," he said.

Kathy Pyner, who teaches English as a Second Language at Paradise Valley High School, said funding is critical to help immigrant students, mostly from Mexico, learn the language and acculturate. More money could mean smaller class sizes and more one-on-one time with students.

"They have to master English before they can go ahead and go to college and get professional jobs, not just (become) housekeepers and landscapers," she said.

Past studies have suggested the state could need to allot up to $1,500 in additional funds per student to adequately fund the English-learner programs. The state now spends about $365 per student.

Republic reporter Yvonne Wingett contributed to this article. Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-4870.