English-learner funds are ruled still not enough
Arizona Republic
March 23, 2007

 Judge gives lawmakers by end of session to create new plan

 Amanda J. Crawford

A federal judge ruled Thursday that the state's plan to educate children struggling to learn the English language violates federal law and puts hundreds of millions of dollars in federal education funding in danger.

U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins said a plan approved by state lawmakers last year to satisfy a seven-year-old court order still does not provide adequate funding to school districts to educate the state's nearly 160,000 English-language learners. By requiring school districts to use federal funds in lieu of state funds, the funding scheme directly violates federal law and could "jeopardize the entire stream of federal educational funds available to the state's students," he wrote.

The judge gave lawmakers, already working under tight budget pressures, until the end of the legislative session to approve a new plan to adequately fund the state's English-learner program or face sanctions.

Republican legislative leaders had not read the ruling as of Thursday night nor made any decision about a possible appeal, but Speaker of the House Jim Weiers said they will "continue to fight this."

The ruling was applauded by the plaintiffs in the case and Gov. Janet Napolitano, who allowed the new funding plan approved by lawmakers in 2006 to go into effect without her signature.

"I ask the leadership of this new Legislature to sit down to reach a real solution to this very real problem and design a way to adequately fund the English-language education of our students," Napolitano said in a statement.
"It is time to place the focus back where it belongs: on children in the classroom rather than on lawyers in court."

A long battle

The case, Flores vs. Arizona, was originally filed in 1992 on behalf of a Nogales family. In 2000, a federal judge ruled that the state funding was not adequate to teach struggling students English, which is required by federal law. Since then, the court has rebuffed several attempts by lawmakers to satisfy the court order by changing its funding models.

"For the last seven years, they have tried to get along with putting as little money as possible into this," said Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which is representing the plaintiffs.

In late 2005, Collins ruled that circumstances remained the same and that the state still wasn't providing the funding necessary to improve conditions for students.

Then, he raised the stakes by fining the state up to $1 million a day and ordering that the fines - more than $21 million by the time lawmakers approved their plan in March - go directly into state classrooms. State officials challenged that move and won, with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordering Collins to hold new hearings on the funding plan.

During the hearing, held over eight days in January, state officials argued that the new plan, which upped state funding from approximately $365 to $444 per pupil was adequate and that court oversight should finally come to an end. They pointed to substantial improvements in teaching English in Nogales.

But plaintiffs argued that Nogales and school districts across the state were succeeding in teaching students English only by putting hundreds or thousands of dollars in additional funding into the classrooms. The judge ruled that it was those local efforts, not help from the state, that were paying off.

In his ruling, Collins said the state's plan systematically underfunds English-language instruction. He called the per-pupil funding amount arbitrary and noted that it is less than the amount called for by previous state cost studies.

Plus, he said the plan has two serious flaws that run afoul of federal law:
It makes funding available only to teach students English for two years, despite evidence that it can take much longer.

It also requires school districts to first use federal funds that are meant to supplement state funding for at-risk students, a move Collins said is "forbidden" under federal law and could threaten more than $600 million per year in federal money for districts across the state.

Republican legislative leaders said they needed to read the opinion in more detail before deciding how to proceed.

A spokeswoman for Napolitano said that although the governor's proposed budget does not include additional funds for English-learners, the $25 million that the Governor's Office estimates is needed is available in the budget surplus within the governor's plan.

Senate Minority Leader Marsha Arzberger, D-Wilcox, called Collins' ruling "uncomfortable but not unexpected." She pointed out that Democrats had argued that the plan approved by lawmakers last year wouldn't win court approval.

Although meeting the court order will take more commitment from the state and could lengthen ongoing budget talks, she said she hoped legislative leaders would look to solve the problem once and for all instead of dragging it out with appeals.

"I hope they don't look for a way to skirt around this obligation again,"
she said.

Republic reporters Jessica Coomes and Mary Jo Pitzl contributed to this article.