Failure on English learners issue risks fines
East Valley Tribune
June 22, 2007

Dennis Welch, Tribune

Arizona faces fines yet again and lawmakers could be forced into a special session because they didn’t obey a judge’s order to fix programs for students struggling to learn English.

While the Legislature passed more than 300 bills during the 164-day session that ended early Thursday morning, it failed to boost spending on programs
for the estimated 135,000 English language learner students as ordered by a federal judge last spring.

“As of today, they (the Legislature) are in violation of a direct court order,” said Tim Hogan, an attorney for plaintiffs in the 15-year-old case. “They should have never adjourned.”

Before the session began in January, many lawmakers labeled English learning as one of the most pressing issues facing Arizona. But it was barely addressed, unlike other top priorities such as employer sanctions for businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants and further regulations to improve the Valley’s air quality.

Hogan said his clients will seek financial sanctions against the state, including the potential of penalizing Senate President Tim Bee, R-Tucson, and House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix.

The prospect of fining the state, however, is nothing new. Last year, the state was fined $1 million per day until lawmakers agreed on a corrective action plan for English learning students. U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins in Tucson later ruled the proposal still short-changed the students and ordered lawmakers to come up with a new scheme by the end of the 2007 session.

Right now, there are a number of legal maneuvers under way, including a motion filed by the Legislature to hold Collin’s order while it appeals the ruling. Barrett Marson, a spokesman for Weiers, said that’s why the Legislature didn’t deal with the English language learners problem this year.

But some lawmakers were worried and argued it’s unwise to ignore a court order. “I raised the issue last week,” said Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, RChandler. “We are a body that makes the laws. We are not a body that should be above the laws.”

The fear of fines prompted some lawmakers to discuss potential loopholes in the judge’s ruling.

One idea was to not adjourn this year and just go home. By doing that, the state could have avoided penalties because it technically never ended the 2007 session.

Both Bee and Weiers were unavailable for comment. But the few lawmakers remaining at the Capitol on Thursday speculated they would be returning soon to tackle the issue.

Rep. Andrew Tobin, R-Prescott, who sat on the House Education Committee, said the Legislature accomplished a lot this year.

But he said he was planning on coming back to the Valley sometime this summer to find a solution for the state’s English learning students.

The fight over those students began in 1992 when a Nogales woman sued the state because she believed Arizona did not spend enough money to adequately fund the learning programs.

Currently, the state spends an additional $335 for every English learning student on top of the per-pupil funding schools receive from the state. Hogan has said he can show the court that the state should spend three times that amount on each student. That would cost the state about $170 million.

Several weeks ago, it also appeared that lawmakers would have to return for a special session to address air pollution in the Valley.

But lawmakers approved a bill on the final day of the session to cut down on the amount of dust that’s kicked up into the air.