Arizona Meets Court Deadline For Funding Plan
With a court-imposed deadline looming, Arizona lawmakers passed legislation late last month to increase the amount of money the state spends on students with limited proficiency in English.
Arizona was one of a handful of states, including Alabama and Florida, that worked late into 2001 to resolve budget issues in special sessions.
But Arizona had the added challenge of the Jan. 31 deadline, which was met when a bipartisan compromise was reached just before Christmas to provide $45 million for teacher training, instructional materials, and tutoring. It raises funding for limited-English-proficient students to $340 per student, double the current level of $170.Whether the plan will satisfy a federal court's demand for greater resources for English-language learners remains to be seen.
"They needed to specifically address the deficiencies outlined by the court—smaller class sizes, more teachers, teachers' aides, tutoring programs—[and] this bill does not do that," said Timothy M. Hogan, the executive director of the Phoenix-based Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest.
In January of 2000, U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez ruled in Flores v. Arizona that the amount of money the state allocated for programs serving students who were learning English as a second language was inadequate. In October that year, he ordered the state department of education to determine what should be spent to educate those students, and he asked the state to increase funding in a timely manner.
The legislature failed to meet the court's request before the end of its regular 2001 session in May, prompting the judge to set the Jan. 31 deadline for action.
Mr. Hogan, the lawyer who represented the students in the class action that prompted the court order, dismissed the legislature's solution as inadequate.
"The judge found the amount the state is spending now arbitrary and capricious," Mr. Hogan said. "This number they pulled out of the sky is no less arbitrary and capricious."
One top lawmaker is more optimistic, however.
"This bill just about doubles the amount per student sent to districts, and we got that number from the [education] department's cost study, which was based on what the district in the lawsuit said they needed," said Sen. Ken Bennett, the Republican who chairs the Senate education committee. "I'd be very surprised if it doesn't satisfy the court order."
Mr. Hogan said his organization would file a motion this month asking the court to declare the plan inadequate. He also plans to ask the judge to require lawmakers to comply by the end of the 2002 session.
As of late last week, Gov. Jane D. Hull, a Republican, was reviewing the legislature's plan and had not yet signed it.
Ala., Fla. Finish Business
Elsewhere Alabama lawmakers took steps that they say will avert midyear budget cuts to education by adopting a package of mostly tax-related measures late last month intended to produce $162 million in revenue and savings this fiscal year. The state's total budget is about $13 billion.
During a special session, the Democratic-led legislature repeatedly overruled vetoes by Gov. Donald Siegelman, a Democrat, on some elements of the plan.
Gov. Siegelman, who had pressed the legislature to act on his own plan for making up the expected revenue shortfall, said he was pleased the final package would prevent school cuts. But he opposed some changes the lawmakers made, especially a phone tax that will apply to both individuals and businesses. A few other tax provisions were aimed specifically at businesses.
The estimated $162 million will enable schools and universities to avoid the 3.5 percent budget cuts this year that state officials had predicted. The plan is expected to provide an additional $154 million in future years.
In Florida, the legislature decided last month to cut about $300 million in school aid from the current budget after attempts to shield schools from budget reductions failed. A drop in tourism-related sales tax revenue since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has forced a $1 billion overall budget cut this year. The total state budget is $48 billion.
School districts in the Sunshine State are responding in all sorts of ways. Sarasota's school board is asking voters to approve a local tax increase in March, and other districts have cut classes, teacher positions, and after-school programs.
Staff Writers Alan Richard and Erik W. Robelen contributed to this report.
Vol. 21, Issue 16, Page 16