Court halts $21 million for English learners
Capitol Media Services

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

By Howard Fischer

PHOENIX A federal appeals court has temporarily blocked the state from giving school districts $21 million in accumulated fines for failing to adopt an acceptable English learners program.
In a two-sentence order, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled no funds can be distributed until at least April 10. The fines were imposed when the state failed to meet a Jan. 24 deadline to come up with a plan to properly fund programs to teach English to students who come to school speaking another language.
The delay in distributing the funds could be extended. It simply gives state schools superintendent Tom Horne until then to prove there is reason to believe U.S. District Judge Raner Collins acted improperly last month in ordering the $21 million be paid out to schools based on how many students each has who are not proficient in English.
Horne, who asked for the stay of Collins' decision, conceded it does not indicate whether the appellate judges believe his arguments have any merit. But Horne, an attorney, said a stay can be issued only if the judges believe there are "serious legal issues that need to be addressed."
He noted that Collins' order will result in schools getting $136 for each affected student, with a requirement to spend the money on programs to help them learn English. And it strictly prohibits the Legislature from telling schools they must spend the money any other way, or from cutting other state aid.
Horne said he is not trying to block schools from getting extra money. But he is arguing that Collins has no right to give money to Arizona schools and tell them how they can spend it.
"Those determinations should be made by the citizens' elected representatives, not by an unelected federal judge," he said.
Tim Hogan, a lawyer who represents the parents who first sued the state in 1992, said the 10-day stay is not unusual or unexpected.
But Hogan said he will use the time to file his own legal arguments defending Collins' order. And he will attempt to convince the appellate judges that delaying disbursement of the money would harm students.
The appellate order comes just days before Collins is to hear arguments over whether the latest funding plan complies with federal laws making the state responsible for ensuring that all students learn English.
That legislative plan boosts extra state funding for these "English language learners" from the current $355 to $432 a year. And it allows schools to seek additional state funds if they can show they are using an accepted method of teaching students through "immersion" programs.
Adoption of the plan halted the fines, which had reached $1 million a day.
Gov. Janet Napolitano allowed the measure to become law without her signature, but said she does not believe it is legally sufficient.
Hogan intends to present the same argument on Monday.
He said the plan drafted by Republican legislative leaders has too many requirements for schools to meet before they qualify for additional funding. That includes using a percentage of federal aid to help students in poverty, a requirement he said violates federal law.
Attorneys for the Arizona School Boards Association said the restrictions are structured to make sure few, if any, districts qualify for additional funding.
Hogan also charges that lawmakers cannot put an arbitrary two-year time limit on extra funding. He said there is research showing that, on average, it takes students at least three years to become proficient.
Horne is defending the legislative plan as legally sufficient.
On StarNet Read more about the Arizona Legislature's ongoing efforts to provide funds for English language learners at