Ariz. faces $500,000-a-day fines in English-learner case
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 16, 2005
Also exempts those students from passing AIMS test
Robbie Sherwood


A  federal judge on Friday ordered lawmakers to come up with a financial plan by late January to help educate school children struggling to learn English, else be fined $500,000 a day -- a penalty that could ultimately rise to $2 million a day.

U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins also ruled that so-called English language learners do not have to pass the high-stakes AIMS test to graduate from high school until lawmakers adequately fund their education. That would likely exempt them from the test until at least spring 2007 and possibly beyond.

Arizona leaders have been under a court order for nearly six years to improve English language programs - which could cost up to $200 million a year - and have missed several deadlines set by the judge. Public interest attorneys filed the original Flores v. Arizona lawsuit on behalf of a Nogales family in 1992.

"This is a pretty big hammer," said Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. "We're really pleased with the decision and are confident this is going to get the state's attention and get them to solve the problem"

Hogan had asked the court to freeze more than $500 million in federal highway funds to the state, a potentially devastating blow to the state's economy that Collins rejected. But Hogan is convinced that the fines will spur immediate action.

Lawmakers will have 15 days after the legislative session starts on Jan. 9 to present Collins with a spending plan. After that, Collins will fine the state $500,000 a day for 30 days. If there's still no progress, the fine grows to $1 million a day for another 30 days. The fine would grow to $1.5 million after that until the legislative session ends. If a typical 100-day session ended with no plan, the total fines would be $77.5 million. If lawmakers adjourn with no plan, the fines grow to $2 million a day and would go on indefinitely.

Hogan also said he was happy for immigrant students who would not have to pass the AIMS test to graduate.

"These kids are just getting penalized for the state's failures," he added. "It's a punitive system. Not just punitive, but wrong."

Some educators have cautioned that exempting ELL students from the AIMS test could wipe out schools' incentive to give them special attention.

Democrat Gov. Janet Napolitano and Republican House and Senate leaders have been at a bitter impasse over how to deal with the judge's orders. Napolitano vetoed a Republican-backed bill in May that she felt was inadequate. Republicans then ignored a Napolitano-crafted plan unveiled over the summer to spend up to $180 million a year because they felt it was too expensive. That prompted Hogan, one of the most influential public interest attorneys in the nation, to go back to court in October and ask Judge Collins to get tough.

Jeanine L'Ecuyer, Napolitano's press secretary, said the governor wants lawmakers to "roll up their sleeves and get this done."

"We need to get this issue resolved and this opinion is right in line with that," L'Ecuyer said. "The governor has wanted and continues to want an educated, English-speaking workforce. This about our children and it's time to get it done."

L'Ecuyer said the governor is "open to the idea" of calling a special session if a bill can be hammered out in time.

"The ball is in the Legislature's court," L'Ecuyer said. "They have to decide if they are going to take this seriously or not. The court has ruled. What the governor has said consistently that if we can get the details worked out, call a special session and get a bill done, out and over, she is open to that idea. She has been serious about doing this for a long time."