Attorney: Budgetary challenges ahead of ELL on priority list
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/education/229049
TUCSON — The attorney for Republican legislative leaders told a federal judge Monday his clients can't fund English-learner programs before they start dealing with next year's budget.
Aaron Brown said the Legislature is trying to deal with a "significant budgetary challenge." The state is at least $1.2 billion in the red for the balance of this year.
And next year — when the funding for English programs has to be in place — the gap between revenues and expenses could hit $2 billion.
Brown told U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins finding the funding — which has been pegged by state School Superintendent Tom Horne at $40 million — has to be "part of the puzzle" in balancing the budget.
But attorney Tim Hogan, who represents the parents who are suing the state, said the budget crunch is legally irrelevant.
Hogan pointed out it has been eight years since Arizona was found in violation of federal laws that require the state to ensure all students have an opportunity to learn English.
And he noted it was Collins who, after approving several delays, told legislators last October he finally wanted the promised funding in place by March 4.
"You don't need to wait to sort all that out," Hogan told the judge. He said this obligation, as a federal court order, "comes off the top" regardless of the state's other financial needs.
Collins promised a ruling later today.
Monday's hearing comes as Hogan pushes to finally resolve the case first filed in 1992.
After the 2000 ruling against the state, lawmakers tried several proposals to satisfy the judge. All were rebuffed as simply funding based on numbers pulled out of the air.
Two years ago legislators finally agreed to have the Department of Education study how best to teach English to the approximately 130,000 students who come to school speaking another language. School districts were then to compute their funding needs to teach to those "models."
That 2006 law commits the state to funding those requests. But that will take an actual legislative appropriation, something that has not yet been approved, or even debated.
Brown told Collins on Monday that Horne did not give the requests to legislators until March 3, a day before the judge's deadline.
"They haven't had a fair amount of time to take what they've been given (and) process it," he said. Brown said legislative leaders need time to review what Horne has submitted — and the $40 million cost — and ask whatever questions they have.
That brought a skeptical response from Collins, who wanted to know if lawmakers have, in fact, posed any of those questions. Brown said he did not know.
But Horne said after the hearing no legislative leader has asked him anything about the program or the funding request since he gave it to them a week ago.
That still leaves the question of whether the state's budget crunch affects how quickly Collins forces lawmakers to act.
David Cantelme, another of the attorneys representing the Republican leaders, conceded after the Monday's court hearing that lawmakers are nowhere close to adopting a budget for next year. In fact, he said, they won't have a budget in place by mid-April, even if Collins gives them that long to fund the English-learner programs.
But Cantelme said that doesn't mean legislators should be forced to act within two weeks.
"You shouldn't go in there and simply automatically write a check for $40 million," he said. "If you're making a serious expenditure you want to take the time to think it through."
Hogan countered the extra four weeks the legislators want are crucial for schools.
"They can't just go out and hire teachers off the street," he said.
"As we all know, teachers are in short supply these days," Hogan continued. "So every day means it's going to be more difficult for school districts to comply."
Hogan said the other reason to rush the process is his belief the $40 million in Horne's recommendation is not enough for schools to do the job. Hogan said once the $40 million is provided, he wants Collins to address the adequacy of financing and rule on that before the new budget year starts July 1.