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