Federal

Arizona Gets Ultimatum on Aid for English-Learners

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 03, 2006 4 min read
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Arizona legislators and Gov. Janet Napolitano have their work cut out for them in this new year: to come up with a plan to provide more money for teaching English-language learners, or face fines of up to $2 million a day.

In a ruling last month, a federal court gave the state until Jan. 24, or just 15 days following the start of its 2006 legislative session, to find a way to adequately fund programs for such students, or be fined $500,000 per day for 30 days. The daily fine would increase to a maximum of $2 million if the state continued to miss the court’s deadlines.

Ms. Napolitano, a Democrat, immediately invited lawmakers to work with her on a resolution. One lawmaker suggested that the process should begin with legislation on the issue that the governor vetoed last year.

The Dec. 15 ruling by U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins is the latest in the Flores v. Arizona school finance lawsuit, which was filed in 1992. Six years ago, the U.S. District Court, based in Phoenix, ruled that the state did not spend enough for the education of English-language learners.

In the latest decision, the court added that students who are still learning English do not have to pass Arizona’s high school exam to receive a diploma until the state proves it has fixed the funding problem.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said in an interview that he would ask the Arizona attorney general to file an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

He and others pledged to work together to craft a solution to satisfy the court ruling while at the same time opposing it.

“It’s inappropriate and unconstitutional for a federal judge to be telling a state that we’re going to be paying fines to the federal government because we haven’t solved the problem the way he wants it to be solved,” said Sen. Ken Bennett, a Republican and the president of the state Senate. “Much of the reason Arizona has to educate so many [English-language learners] is that the federal government hasn’t done its job securing borders.”

In February 2000, the court ruled that the state’s method of funding programs for English-language learners was inadequate and violated the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974, which requires school districts to take actions to overcome students’ language barriers in educational programs.

‘Effective Sanctions’

Mr. Bennett said legislators would try to improve the same bill that they passed last spring that attempted to address funding for the education of the state’s 160,000 English-language learners.

By passing that bill, the legislature had hoped to satisfy a previous court mandate that it fix the funding problem for English-language learners by April of last year or the end of the legislative session, whichever came later. But Gov. Napolitano vetoed the bill in May, saying it didn’t provide enough money for English-language learners.

Court Pressure

A federal court has given the Arizona legislature until Jan. 24, or 15 days after the start of the 2006 legislative session, to adequately fund education programs for English-language learners.

Jan. 9, 2006
Beginning of 2006 legislative session
Grace period of 15 calendar days.
Jan. 24
A $500,000-per-day fine for the next 30 days will be imposed until the state is in compliance.
Feb. 23
If the state has still not complied, the court will impose a fine of $1 million per day for the following 30 days until the state is in compliance.
March 25
If the state continues to be out of compliance, the court will impose a fine of $1.5 million per day until the end of the 2006 legislative session.
End of 2006 legislative session
If the state has not complied by the end of the session, a fine of $2 million per day will be imposed until the state has complied with the Jan. 28, 2005, court order.

SOURCE: U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona

Patti Urias, a spokeswoman for the governor, said that the December ruling has “some teeth” to it. “When you talk about fining the state money, that’s pressure,” she said in an interview. She added that the governor has invited the legislative leadership to visit her office to work out a solution.

Mr. Horne, the state schools chief, contended that the federal court has unfairly failed to take into consideration the amount of funding that the state receives from the federal government for English-language learners in determining that funding overall in Arizona for such students is inadequate. At the least, he said, the court should take federal funds into account and tell Arizona the amount that it needs to make up.

Mr. Horne also disputed the court’s decision to exempt English-language learners from the high school exit exam until the funding matter is resolved.

The exam is part of Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, the state testing system.

“Until this ruling, these students were heavily motivated to become proficient in English. This ruling undercuts their motivation to acquire the skills they need to succeed in today’s economy,” Mr. Horne said.

Timothy M. Hogan, the public-interest lawyer who filed the Flores v. Arizona lawsuit, said he was pleased with the court’s decision. “We got some pretty effective sanctions in place,” he said, referring to the potential fines. “If [legislators] have a 100-day session and don’t do anything, the total would be $72.5 million.”

Immigration Impact

The day before the federal court issued last month’s ruling, Superintendent Horne issued a press release saying that he had asked Arizona’s U.S. congressional delegation to request $750 million in federal aid to help pay Arizona for what it costs to educate children who do not have documentation of legal U.S. residence.

“I would urge the Arizona delegation to push for an allocation of federal dollars to defray the costs to state taxpayers, who are currently bearing the burden of paying for the education of children who are not here legally,” Mr. Horne said in the Dec. 14 statement. Mr. Horne, citing what he said were figures from the Pew Hispanic Center, said that Arizona has 125,000 undocumented children in its schools.

Jeffrey S. Passel, a senior research associate for the Pew Hispanic Center, a research center based in Washington, said in response that while he had once stated that Arizona had 125,000 children of undocumented immigrants, a majority of those children were born in the United States and thus are American citizens. He estimates that Arizona actually has about 60,000 children who are living in the country illegally.

Mr. Horne said that Arizona shouldn’t have to bear most of the burden of educating either the children who are undocumented themselves or those who were born in the United States and are the children of immigrants who reside in the United States illegally.

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