Arizona ELL-Funding Plan Draws Scattered Backlash

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 05, 2008 4 min read
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Some Arizona school administrators are unhappy about the formula being used to distribute an extra $40.6 million for English-language learners in the state for next school year to satisfy a court order. They argue that the formula shortchanges some districts that have many ELLs while giving a windfall to others with few such students.

The details of the distribution plan were devised by a state task force on ELLs that was formed to figure out how to implement provisions of a bill approved in March 2006 to comply with a federal court order in a long-running case, Flores v. Arizona.

But it remains unclear if the more than $40 million in funding approved last month by the legislature will pass muster with the U.S. District Court in Tucson. That court, in the Flores case, has ruled that Arizona doesn’t provide enough money for the instruction of the state’s 138,000 English-learners. (“Arizona Still Grappling With Order on Adequate Funding for ELLs,” March 5, 2008.)

Timothy M. Hogan, a lawyer for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, who is representing the plaintiffs in the case, plans to file a motion in the federal court contending that the new appropriation and the distribution plan don’t solve the problem.

“It’s irrational the way the money is distributed,” Mr. Hogan said in an interview last week. “There are over 30 school districts with [a total of] over 50,000 ELL students who get zero funding.”

In the meantime, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is preparing to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in the Flores case. In an interview last week, Mr. Horne compared the federal judges who are making decisions in that case to the British ruling class of the Revolutionary War era.

“We teach our students we rebelled against the English because we thought we were smart enough to rule ourselves through our elected representatives—and we didn’t need a British aristocracy ruling over us,” he said. “I still think we should be able to rule ourselves, and we don’t need an aristocracy of federal judges ruling over us.”

He objects to the federal court’s ruling that Arizona doesn’t have the right to put a two-year limit on the amount of time schools are eligible to receive funding for an English-learner, and that the state may not reduce the amount of money it gives school districts for ELLs based on how much the districts already receive in federal aid.

Complaints About Method

Since 2001, Arizona has given districts $365 per English-learner in addition to the standard per-pupil amount.

U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins, who is overseeing the Flores case, had ordered the legislature to come up with funding system that is based on the actual incremental costs of providing programs for ELLs beyond the cost of educating regular pupils.

But a number of school administrators are critical of the plan governing distribution of the $40.6 million in new funds and the way in which that money is to be used.

Some districts, such as Nogales Unified, with large numbers of English-learners, are scheduled to receive no increase in aid as part of the boost in spending. At the same time, some districts with small numbers of ELLs, such as the 6,000-student Apache Junction Unified, which has 354 such students, expect to receive hundreds of thousands of additional dollars.

“It’s been a long year. It’s been difficult at best,” said Guillermo Zamudio, the superintendent of the 6,000-student Nogales Unified School District, where about a third of students are English-language learners. “It doesn’t make any sense. It’s illogical. I don’t believe the decisions being made are in the best interest of students.”

Mr. Zamudio said that Nogales, the school district at the center of Flores v. Arizona, is not slated to receive any new money primarily because, according to the distribution plan, the district doesn’t need to hire additional teachers for ELLs.

The distribution plan provides funding for new teachers to be hired so that the ratio of teachers to English-learners is one-to-28. Nogales Unified has already met that ratio, so the district doesn’t qualify for new funds, Mr. Zamudio said.

The reason for a lack of new funding is different in the Tucson Unified School District, where 7,700 of 60,000 students are ELLs, and in the Cartwright Elementary School District, where more than 9,000 of 20,500 students are ELLs. Administrators in both those districts say they are ineligible for extra ELL money under the new distribution formula because they already receive a significant amount of aid for desegregation purposes.

Arizona House Majority Leader Tom Boone, a Republican, said he doesn’t see how Judge Collins can find fault with the funding formula for ELLs this time because it is based on incremental costs for ELL programs submitted by the state’s school districts.

“I sponsored almost all the ELL legislation in the last five years,” Mr. Boone said. “It set up the system by which we finally got to calculate the cost of ELL programs in Arizona. We had to go through all the proper steps required by the court. The judge said, ‘You can’t just pick a number.’ ”

Mr. Boone said that when administrators from six school districts testified in federal court last December about the costs of programs for ELL students, none calculated the incremental costs in the same manner.

The funding-distribution plan is “consistent” across districts, he said.

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