Lawmakers get extension — and penalties if they fail
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/education/229238
PHOENIX — A federal judge agreed Tuesday to give lawmakers five more weeks to approve funding for English learner programs, but with penalties if they let that deadline slip.
U.S. District Judge Raner Collins accepted arguments by attorneys for Republican legislative leaders that they could not meet his original deadline to have funding in place. That deadline was last Tuesday. He gave them until April 15.
He agreed lawmakers need the additional time to digest a report submitted to them March 3 by state Schools Superintendent Tom Horne saying individual districts need an additional $40.6 million a year in state funds to properly teach English to students who come to school speaking other languages.
But Collins, in his two-page order, showed he is running out of patience with the state, which now has been under court order for eight years to properly fund English instruction programs. He said each day lawmakers go beyond April 15 will cost Arizona $2 million in fines.
And Collins said if they hit May 15 without funding, those daily fines will go up to $5 million.
House Majority Leader Tom Boone, R-Peoria, said he was pleased by the ruling and promised the Legislature will meet the April 15 deadline, which is just three days short of the additional time lawmakers had sought. But Boone said the measure will be structured so the state could end up paying only half that amount.
Boone and Horne believe schools should be forced to first use certain federal aid they are getting before tapping the state treasury. If that offset is allowed, the actual cost to Arizona taxpayers would be less than $20 million.
So far, though, Collins and a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have rejected that contention. But attorneys for the state are asking the full appellate court to reconsider.
Boone said any legislation would spell out that if the state wins that argument, the extra dollars are not given out.
Tuesday's order came over the objections of Tim Hogan who represents the parents who first sued in 1992 over questions of funding adequacy. He had asked Collins to force lawmakers to have the additional funding in place by next Tuesday, two weeks after the judge's original deadline.
Hogan said $40.6 million is not enough for Arizona to meet its obligations under federal law to ensure all 130,000 students classified as "English language learners" have an opportunity to learn English. He wants the first cash distribution to take place as soon as possible so he can then go back to court and ask Collins to order lawmakers to come up with more.
Collins has imposed fines in the past, assessing the state $21 million in 2006 for missing an earlier deadline. But those penalties never were collected after the 9th Circuit said he first should have given the state a chance to show how conditions have changed since it was first found in violation of the law in 2000.
Collins did provide that hearing and concluded Arizona was still not meeting its legal obligations.
Since then, though, he accepted arguments by lawyers for Horne and GOP leaders that they are coming up with new "teaching models" for English language learners and, once that is done, they will provide the funding.
Those models, adopted last year, consist largely of placing students who are not proficient in English into special classes for four hours each day of "immersion" learning.
School districts put in $274.6 million in funding requests, which Horne pared to $40.6 million — and less than $19.3 million if federal funds can be considered. And while Hogan and Horne disagree over the adequacy of the financing, they agree that unless and until Collins' order is overturned, the state is legally obligated now to come up with at least that $40.6 million.