Parents offer to settle English-learner lawsuit
Capitol Media Services
Jan. 10, 2007

By Howard Fischer Josh Brodesky

Arizona Daily Star

Tucson, Arizona | Published: 01.10.2007

http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/education/163996 

The lawyer for parents suing the state over English- learner skills has made an offer to finally settle the 15-year-old litigation.

Tim Hogan said Tuesday that he presented attorneys for both the Legislature and schools superintendent Tom Horne a deal to have the state put more money into educating these students.

Neither Hogan nor legislative leaders would provide specifics. But Hogan suggested a final deal could be based on a plan the lawmakers approved last year, which included $432 per student a year but with more money involved.

Last week, Hogan said he would prove that it costs at least $1,600 per student. On Tuesday, with the settlement under consideration, he backed off from any set numbers.

"I want to see good (education) models. And I want to see the models funded," he said during a break in a hearing in U.S. District Court in Tucson over the long-running dispute.

The state currently gives schools about $360 extra per year for each of the approximately 135,000 youngsters classified as "English-language learners," a figure U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins said is not enough to do the job properly.

Collins rejected the package approved last year, which would have added conditions for receiving extra state funding as well as boosting the amount to $432.

But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year ordered Collins to reconsider, this time assessing current conditions in Arizona schools, not what they were seven years ago, when a prior judge first found the state in violation of federal law.

In the first day of what could be a four-day trial, the state laid out its argument that language acquisition comes from effective education models that include, among other facets, unified curriculum and certification for teachers as well as periodic assessment of student test scores.

"We believe the funding level is appropriate," said attorney Eric Bistrow, who represents Horne's office.

Bistrow often cited improved AIMS-test scores for students in the Nogales Unified School District as proof the state's education models are working.

"They have a high level of performance on the AIMS test," said Rosalie Pedalino Porter, an expert on English-language acquisition and education and a witness for the state. "It's better than what I have seen in many places."

Porter did a cost-study analysis for the state last year, comparing Nogales Unified with four other districts across the country.

However, Hogan noted two of those districts, which Porter described as having excellent programs, were funded at a rate of about $1,000 per student. He also questioned the reliability of testing data coming from Nogales Unified.

Hogan said attorneys representing the Legislature were not interested in his settlement proposal until Collins last week rejected a request to delay this week's hearing. At that point, Hogan said, David Cantelme, who represents the Legislature, "asked me to put something in writing and get it to him, which I did."

Beyond funding, Hogan said other provisions in the plan approved last year would have to be dropped.

For example, the bill said schools could get extra money only after they exhausted other sources of cash, such as federal grants for students in poverty. And Hogan will not accept another provision that limits extra state aid to just two years per student.

House Majority Whip Tom Boone said Hogan's offer cannot be dismissed simply because it might cost the state more than lawmakers approved last year. He said legislators must determine "what would be the odds" of losing the lawsuit and having to spend a lot more money than accepting Hogan's offer would cost.

Horne declined to say if the specifics of Hogan's offer are acceptable, but the offer has to be considered, he said.

Settlements can be "a good thing because they lower your risk," he said. And the risk is significant. Hogan believes he can show the court that the state needs to boost funding far beyond $1,000 a student, which could cost the state $170 million a year or more.

● Contact reporter Josh Brodesky at 807-7789 or jbrodesky@azstarnet.com.