English-learner law challenged
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 4, 2006
TUCSON - GOP lawmakers got a long-awaited day in court Monday to defend a new
state law that would pump $32 million into schools next year to improve
instruction for students struggling to learn English.
But the legislators got no help from Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard's
office, which typically defends state laws in court. A private attorney hired by
Goddard to represent the state told U.S. District Judge Raner Collins that key
parts of the Legislature's plan violate federal law.
Collins took the case under advisement Monday and said he would not rule before
Under the new law, schools would get an initial increase in funding to help
deal with English learners. But after that schools would have to divert
federal funds they receive for poverty-related programs to cover the
remaining costs of teaching English.
States are prohibited from committing federal funds to pay for state
responsibilities, said Jose Cardenas, attorney for the state.
"It would be the height of irresponsibility for the state to ignore the fact
that this bill would violate federal law," Cardenas said. "School districts
will be forced to make some very tough decisions on whether they violate
federal law or underfund English-language-learner programs."
Collins had forced lawmakers into action on a 6-year-old court order by
handing down daily fines that reached $21 million. Gov. Janet Napolitano let
the Legislature's plan go into law last month without her signature after
vetoing two previous efforts.
She has voiced the same concerns about the plan as Cardenas and attorney Tim
Hogan of the Center for Law in the Public Interest. Hogan also told Collins
on Monday that the Legislature's plan should be rejected.
Attorneys for the Legislature and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom
Horne urged Collins to give their plan a chance to work. Eric Bistrow, who
argued for Horne, said many of the contested federal funds are being used to
help English learners. And he said the state is committed to increasing
extra per-pupil funding to $430 from $380 per child, so there would be no
supplanting of federal funds.
Bistrow also said the judge had little choice but to give the Legislature's
plan a chance to work because tense relations between its Republican authors
and Napolitano made further compromise unlikely.
"We have a sharply divided government," Bistrow said. "We have a governor
and a Legislature who don't talk to one another. The only other alternative
is to give this bill a chance."
House Appropriations Chairman Tom Boone, one of the plan's main architects,
watched the arguments and said he was hopeful the plan would be upheld.
"I don't know what the outcome will be, but it was the first time the state
has been able to present its case to the court, so I'm obviously hopeful,"
the Phoenix Republican said.
Attorney David Cantelme, who argued for Republican House and Senate Leaders,
said the performance of English learners in Nogales, where the Flores vs.
Arizona lawsuit originated in 1992, has improved dramatically under current
state funding levels. Cantelme said the state has increased its per-pupil
funding for all students, as well as English learners, since the original
suit and that more money may not be needed.
"If Nogales Unified School District can do it, there's no reason why other
school districts can't do it as well," Bistrow said.
Schools will have the next year to determine if they need more money than is
contained in the bill or is coming in via the federal government.
Collins, who more than once voiced frustration that this issue is still in
his court six years after the court order to take action, said he would rule
"as quickly as possible."