Arizona Starts Accruing Big Fines in Lawsuit Over English-Learners

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 31, 2006 3 min read
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Arizona began accruing fines of $500,000 per day last week after Gov. Janet Napolitano and state legislators failed to meet a federal court’s deadline for reaching an agreement on how to increase funding in public schools for the education of English-language learners.

The governor and legislators missed the Jan. 24 deadline set by U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins in a December 16 ruling on a 14-year-old lawsuit, Flores v. Arizona, concerning the education of Arizona’s 160,000 English-learners. In that ruling, Judge Collins wrote that the state had to find a way to pay for an adequate education for English-language learners or face fines of $500,000 per day.

Under that ruling, the fines would increase to a maximum of $2 million per day if the issue remains unsettled at the end of the current legislative session this spring. (“Arizona Gets Ultimatum on Aid for English-Learners,” Jan. 4, 2006.)

Court Pressure

A federal court gave 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

(15-day grace period)

Jan. 24 -- $500,000 per day

Feb. 23 -- $1 million per day

March 25 -- $1.5 million per day

End of 2006 legislative session
$2 million per day

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

Last week, state officials and legislators were debating what should happen with the money from the fines at the same time that legislators continued to try to come up with a bill that the Democratic governor would sign.

In the most significant development as of late last week, Judge Collins told the parties involved in the lawsuit during a Jan. 26 telephone conference call that the fines should be paid immediately and would go into a fund to benefit Arizona’s English-language learners. He gave the parties until Jan. 31 to submit plans on how those funds should be distributed. The judge also invited the legislature, which is not a defendant in the lawsuit, to also submit a plan to the court on the issue.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs in Flores v. Arizona, Timothy M. Hogan, approved the judge’s decision on the fines. “I’ve said consistently that any fines should be held for the benefit of English-language learners,” he said in a telephone interview.

Republicans in the Senate expressed frustration last week that Ms. Napolitano, a Democrat, vetoed two bills approved by the legislature on Jan. 24, the day of the court’s deadline, that they hoped would have satisfied the court.

Republicans in the state House and Senate unanimously supported both bills. No Democrat in either chamber backed the bills, each of which contained $31 million in additional money for fiscal 2006 for English-language learners.

“We would have liked to see our bill go before the judge and see if it would answer the court’s questions,” said Sen. Marilyn Jarrett, a Republican. “We feel it’s the judge that should answer if this would satisfy the lawsuit or not, not the governor.”

The most controversial aspect of both bills was that they contained provisions to create a new tuition tax-credit program for English-language learners to attend private schools.

“The issue of tuition-tax credits for private schools should not even be in this bill,” wrote Ms. Napolitano in a statement explaining her veto of the second bill. “Remarkably, this bill actually allows for more funds to go toward ELL education in private schools than it does for such education in our public schools.”

By the end of last week, lawmakers were still debating how to produce a bill that the governor might sign.

Mr. Hogan applauded Ms. Napolitano for vetoing the bill because he said it provided funding for the education of English-learners that wasn’t tied to actual costs of programs. He said the bills that the legislators passed last week were very similar to one approved during the legislative session that ended last spring—and vetoed by the governor—except for the addition of the tuition-tax credits.

Legal Moves Debated

Also last week, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, an elected Democrat, was grilled by legislators during a Jan. 26 House appropriations hearing regarding his involvement in the Flores v. Arizona lawsuit.

“He was questioned over and over again about who he was representing,” said Andrea Esquer, a spokeswoman for the attorney general. Some members asked why he hadn’t appealed the court’s Dec. 16 ruling and were upset that he had filed a motion with the court, at Ms. Napolitano’s request, asking that the money from the fines be given to the Arizona Department of Education for redistribution to education programs for English-language learners.

Ms. Esquer explained that the parties represented by the attorney general did not agree on how to respond to the ruling. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne filed a state-funded appeal, although the other two parties decided not to appeal the ruling, Ms. Esquer said.

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