English deficit at $210 million
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 19, 2005

Court presses Arizona to comply

Chip Scutari

Arizona would need to spend an additional $210 million a year to help students overcome language barriers and get a decent education, according to a court-ordered study released Friday.

The report, which was required as part of a federal court order against Arizona, showed that the state should spend about $1,200 more on each of the 175,000 students called English-language learners.

That $210 million price tag would bring smaller class sizes, more tutoring, more classroom supplies and more teacher training. The news could be a blow for lawmakers grappling with a state budget deficit.

A key Republican for budget issues said he will not kowtow to a federal judge, referring to the federal court order.

"Those numbers mean nothing to me. We'll decide what is an appropriate number," said Rep. Russell Pearce, a Mesa Republican who chairs one of the House appropriations committees.

"When do you stand up for what's right? We have to stand up to the courts when they are wrong," he added.

The National Conference of State Legislatures did the study.

Other Republican legislative leaders on Friday didn't want to comment.

Nick Simonetta, communications director for Senate Republicans, said that lawmakers still are scrutinizing the 148-page document.

"The goal is to get this reviewed as quickly as possible. The goal is to get it going through the public process," he said.

After the report is reviewed, it will be sent to House and Senate committees to kick-start the public dialogue, Simonetta said.

In January, a federal judge ruled that lawmakers are shortchanging the students and ordered the Legislature to fix the problem by the end of its 2005 session. At that time, Republican leaders declined to commit themselves to spending any more money to satisfy U.S. District Judge Raner Collins' ruling. They already face a substantial deficit going into budget negotiations for fiscal 2006.

The case grew out of a lawsuit, Flores vs. Arizona, filed by a Nogales family in 1992. A federal judge found in 2000 that existing funding failed to ensure that students would overcome language barriers. The state now spends about $355 per child on English learners, or students who speak another language and are trying to learn English. In all, Arizona spends nearly $80 million a year on English-learner education programs.

Tim Hogan of Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest said Arizona continues to ignore the federal court order.

"They've been dragging their feet for five years to try to figure out ways to avoid their funding obligations to these kids," said Hogan, who also successfully sued the state over school-construction financing. "They want these kids to meet impossibly high standards, but they just refuse to give them the resources they need to do it."

If lawmakers do increase English-language learner funding, school officials in a pair of Phoenix elementary school districts said they could improve instruction dramatically by providing more individual help for students.

"It would almost be impossible to imagine an infusion like that," said Mike Martinez, superintendent of the Cartwright Elementary School District, where about half the students are trying to learn English as a second language.

"We know what works, but without those types of resources in terms of time, personnel and materials, we are falling short of our ability to do that."

Martinez said most of his classes have about 27 students and he'd like to bring the number down to 15 to 17.

Kent P. Scribner, superintendent of the Isaac School District No. 5, hopes to see the money but is skeptical the Legislature will deliver without taking money from another part of the school system.

"The key here is it cannot be a shell game, it must be value added," Scribner said. "It must not supplant existing funding sources for programs that are also badly needed."

The Legislature will be watched closely.

Hogan said that if lawmakers don't meet the deadline, he will ask the judge to strip the state of its federal highway funding. That could cost the state more than $400 million and would have its biggest impact on the southeast Valley.

"I don't think that will ever happen," Pearce said.

Hogan has forced the state to change key policies ranging from school-construction financing to environmental cleanups. It's too early to know if federal highway funds will be withheld, but the Maricopa Association of Governments cited projects that could be affected. They include the widening of Interstate 17 from Loop 101 to Carefree Highway; the construction of high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Pima Freeway in the East Valley; and the widening of U.S. 60, Superstition Freeway, from Val Vista to Power roads.

Democratic Rep. Pete Rios said "lawmakers have to put their money where their mouth is."

"It's high time we fund this program adequately," said Rios, D-Hayden. "There are ways of massaging the budget and getting the money. Every kid has to learn English and learn it well. This will be difficult."

Staff reporter Robbie Sherwood contributed to this article