Judge: State shorting English ed
Capitol Media Services
Jan. 26, 2005

Lawyer wants court to hold road funds if spending doesn't rise

Chip Scutari

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 dollar figure.

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 fiscal 2006.

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 learners.

"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 federal funding.

"It's time for these kids to get the help they need."

Freeway projects

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 language."

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."

Overcoming barriers

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 deficit.

"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 the voters."

Reporter Robbie Sherwood contributed to this article.