Languagefunding deadline set
Arizona Republic
March 12, 2008


State faces fines that could reach $5 mil a day

Mary Jo Pitzl

The state Legislature has until April 15 to properly fund English-language-learner programs or face fines of $2 million a day that could climb to $5 million daily.

The order by U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins nearly matches the April 18 deadline that legislative leaders sought and adds another urgent item to a state agenda that is already reeling under a $1.2 billion budget deficit.

House Majority Leader Tom Boone said he was confident that lawmakers would have a funding plan before the court by the new deadline.
"That's why we asked for it," said Boone, R-Peoria. "I personally would like to see it done before then."

The judge's order is a flashback to two years ago, when lawmakers were under a similar court-ordered deadline to produce an acceptable funding plan for the estimated 140,000 students who are not native English speakers.

At the time, Collins levied fines that started at $500,000 a day and increased to $1 million a day. The fines mounted to $21 million before the penalty was overturned by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The state is back under the gun because of subsequent legal rulings that have faulted the state for not yet setting aside enough money to meet equal-education standards set out in federal law.

Attorney Tim Hogan is representing the original plaintiffs in the Flores vs. Arizona case, which has grown into a class-action lawsuit involving every school district that has students who need to learn English. The lawsuit, started in 1992, claims the state does not meet equal-opportunity laws for education because it does not provide adequate English instruction for non-native speakers.

Hogan said the April 15 deadline narrows the time that school districts will have to prepare for state-mandated English programs. Beginning with the fall semester, the schools must provide four hours a day of English instruction to non-native speakers.

"It's going to be a challenge for school districts, and it's going to be a challenge for us to test the adequacy of what the Legislature appropriates," Hogan said.

However, he noted the fines are hefty and may be an incentive to move along.

Boone said lawmakers are working on funding plans now. Last week, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne told lawmakers that it would take $40 million to properly fund the language programs at the schools. The figure would drop to $19 million if the state did not have to comply with a court requirement to not count federal funds toward the program costs.

"I believe we're close to having it resolved," Boone said, as he emerged from closed-door budget talks.