Ariz. English-learning issue back in court
PHOENIX- A federal judge will begin a lengthy hearing Monday to take another look at the adequacy and funding of Arizona school programs for students learning English, including a new state mandate for four-hour instruction blocks.
The hearing being held in Tucson by U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins is scheduled to last until Nov. 13.
Depending on Collins' eventual ruling, the issue could be thrust back before the Legislature at a time when the state is facing budget problems.
The hearing comes 16 years after critics of Arizona's funding for English Language Learning programs filed a class-action lawsuit. Eight years into the case, another judge ruled in 2000 that the programs and their funding are inadequate.
The Legislature then took several steps that culminated in 2006 with the enactment of a law that requires school districts to use state-approved instruction models. Those include a requirement for daily four-hour blocks for instruction of English for the 130,000 students learning English.
At one point in the case, Collins imposed $21 million in fines against the state. Those fines were erased on appeal.
Supporters of the 2006 law contend its changes in ELL programs satisfy the court's 2000 order and provides the necessary money - a funding increase of $41.6 million - for implementation.
State officials supporting the approach taken so far contend that the dollars provided are based on districts' actual needs and supplement existing funding.
The continued legal challenge is premature because the models "have just been implemented and therefore have not had a decent tryout," David Cantelme, a lawyer for Republican legislative leaders who helped enact the 2006 law, wrote in a brief. "The models are working and will have great success if allowed a fair tryout."
Meanwhile, the plaintiffs' lawyers contend the 2006 law doesn't satisfy federal requirements for equal opportunities in education.
"The state's funding scheme is a mishmash of funding which fails to address the core issue in this case," plaintiffs' lead attorney Tim Hogan wrote. "Even with the new appropriation, there is still no relationship between the costs of a school district's ELL programs and the funding it receives."
The state appropriation isn't adequate to hire enough teachers to implement the models and it shortchanges districts by not taking into account that some have had to scrimp elsewhere to pay for ELL costs, Hogan said.
Collins has previously ruled that the changes made by the state to revamp ELL programs and their funding weren't enough but he is holding the new hearing because an appeals court's ruling put the issue back on his plate for reconsideration.
The broad scope of the hearing was a win for the plaintiffs' lawyers, but Collins at least initially refused to prohibit the state from requiring districts to use the models. He left open the possibility that he could still issue the requested injunction.
The Republican legislative leaders have already appealed prior orders in the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. That appeal is pending, with filings by the parties set to continue into December.