Jan. 26, 2005
Lawyer wants court to hold road funds if
spending doesn't rise
A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Arizona
lawmakers are shortchanging about 200,000
students struggling to learn English and ordered
the Legislature to fix the problem by the end of
its 2005 session.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Raner
Collins in Tucson could force legislators to
pump as much as $200 million a year into English
language programs for public schoolchildren in
Arizona. His ruling didn't provide a specific
A well-known public interest attorney said if
lawmakers fail to meet the deadline, he will ask
Collins to strip the state of its federal
highway funding. That could cost the state more
than $400 million and would have its biggest
impact on the booming southeast Valley.
"Thus far, the Legislature has failed to meet
the court's deadlines as well
as their own," the judge said in his ruling. "If
the court were to defer its ruling . . . the
children will have to wait more than another
year for any type of relief."
Collins said the Legislature has until April 30,
or the end of the current regular session,
whichever comes later, to deal with the issue.
Legislative leaders declined Tuesday to commit
themselves to spending any more money to satisfy
Collins' ruling. They said they are waiting for
a cost study scheduled for completion in
mid-February. They already face a substantial
deficit going into budget negotiations for
House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, said the
court order "wasn't necessary."
"We've taken steps," Weiers said. "We're waiting
for the (cost study) to come out."
The case grew out of a lawsuit, Flores vs.
Arizona, filed by a Nogales family in 1992. A
federal judge found in 2000 that existing
funding failed to ensure that students would
overcome language barriers.
Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the
Public Interest said Arizona continues to ignore
the federal court order revolving around the
200,000 students who are dubbed English language
"Five years is long enough for these kids to
wait," Hogan told The Arizona Republic. "We
could have easily lost another year. These kids
aren't learning English. You can't just
disregard federal law on the one hand and then
on the other keep taking all the benefits of
"It's time for these kids to get the help they
Hogan has already forced the state to change key
policies ranging from school-construction
financing to environmental cleanups. Although
it's too early to know if federal highway funds
will be withheld, the Maricopa Association of
Governments this week cited some projects that
could be affected.
They include the widening of Interstate 17 from
the Loop 101 to the Carefree Highway; the
construction of high occupancy vehicle lanes on
the Pima Freeway in the East Valley; and the
widening of U.S. 60, the Superstition Freeway,
from Val Vista to Power roads.
The state now spends about $354 per child on
200,000 students who are classified as English
learners, or students who speak another language
and are trying to learn English. In all, Arizona
spends nearly $80 million a year on
English-learner education programs.
Hogan's lawsuit doesn't specify a figure on the
cost of meeting all the needs of the 200,000
children, but some recent studies have put the
cost near $1,200 per student.
Georgina Takemota, assistant superintendent for
curriculum and instruction for the Phoenix
Elementary School District compared the lack of
funding to the impact on a large family trying
to stretch dollars to put food on the table.
"It's kind of like parents that have six
children but only enough food for four," she
said. "So you do what you have to do to
accommodate all your children. ... Everything is
a challenge when you are learning a second
More than half of the 8,000 students in the
Phoenix Elementary School District come from
homes where English isn't the primary language.
Tutoring and textbooks
Teachers and administrators say that the
additional funding is needed for more tutoring,
textbooks and supplies to help these students
catch up in school. Critics say the children
should be immersed in English and shouldn't be
another huge fiscal hit to the state coffers.
Hogan said if lawmakers don't act by the end of
the session, he will ask the judge to withhold
federal highway funds because lawmakers "care
about that kind of funding."
Senate Democratic Leader Linda Aguirre said she
has introduced a bill so lawmakers can comply
with the court order.
"Anyone who's worked in the field knows the need
and that it's not been properly addressed,"
Aguirre said. The Flores controversy has been
hanging over the Legislature since the beginning
of the decade. In 2000, former Arizona Schools
Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan signed a
consent decree that required legislators to put
more money into English-learner programs.
In December 2001, after constant legal prodding
from Hogan, the Legislature passed a bill that
more than doubled the amount for every
English-learner student. But that was supposed
to be a temporary fix while lawmakers awaited
the results of an independent cost study.
Senate President Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, and
Weiers, recently wrote a letter to the judge
saying they intend to refer the cost study to a
legislative committee for review.
That didn't sit well with Hogan.
"A lot of things go to legislative committees
and never see the light of day," he said. "It's
time for them to act."
Educators at the Isaac School District in
central Phoenix tackle the challenges of
overcoming language barriers every day of the
school week. About 50 percent of their students
are learning English as a second language.
"The funding right now is sadly low," Isaac
Superintendent Kent P. Scribner said. "If we're
going to have first-class academic standards, we
need to have first-class academic funding."
The issue of English-learner programs has been a
thorny subject for the Legislature for years.
Some schools spend as little as $200 per
student, while others spend more than $3,000.
Some Republican lawmakers are convinced that
Arizona can't afford to spend more on these
programs as they continue to tackle a budget
"We decide policy, not Tim Hogan and the
courts," said Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa. "We
have a $500 million deficit. Where are we going
to find an additional $200 million? It will
bankrupt the state and force tax increases on
Reporter Robbie Sherwood contributed to this