Speak up, Judge
Arizona Republic
Nov. 10, 2005

Clear standards, not jail time, are needed on English-learner programs


Here's the news: U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins is considering imposing sanctions that could cost more than $500 million in federal highway dollars if Arizona doesn't come up with a plan he likes to fund the education of school kids who don't speak English.

At a hearing in Tucson last week, the judge also asked who should go to jail if a solution isn't found to a problem that was identified in federal court in 2000. A lawyer suggested the governor and legislative leaders, including Senate President Ken Bennett and House Speaker Jim Weiers.

Here's the secret: That question was more about show than substance. We doubt if Collins was serious about locking up elected officials. It's a silly idea, although it has some visceral appeal given the petulance surrounding this issue.

Even a request to withhold highway money is far less serious than it sounds. Tim Hogan is the attorney for the Center for Law in the Public Interest, which wants the judge to use sanctions as a way of "coercing compliance."

But Hogan proposes a 30-day delay if the order is issued, giving the state time to act before a penny is lost. It's a big hammer, with an escape clause. In addition, the state could drag the court order through years of appeals.

Here's the tragedy: In the meantime, students are getting shortchanged.

There are 160,000 to 185,000 students in Arizona classrooms who need to learn English before they can learn anything else. In 2000, the court ruled that the method of providing funding to cover the language acquisition needs of those students was "arbitrary and capricious." Test scores show these kids are not being served.

Last session, state lawmakers settled on a plan that required districts to apply for additional money yearly for English learners. Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed that and proposed increased funding for each English deficient pupil by formula to assure uniformity. Lawmakers didn't like that idea.

The state has missed several court-imposed deadlines to fix the system, so the judge is pondering his options.

Here's what's at stake: Properly educated, students who speak English as a second language can help Arizona compete in a global economy and take full advantage of the trade opportunities represented by the international border.

Poorly educated, they can cost in ways that begin with lost earning potential and can end with prison. These kids need a plan for their educational future.

Here's the opportunity: The judge can do something truly constructive to shake this up. He can take a look at the legislative bill Napolitano vetoed at the end of last session and compare it with the governor's plan. He can say which one - or what combination of the two - will please the court.

As is stands now, both sides think they have the answer, and both sides have a lot of ego invested after a spat of name-calling and finger-pointing that marked the end of last session.

Both sides think they have the plan the judge would approve. Rather than send them to jail, the judge ought to tell them what he thinks.