Kids can't outwait endless legal tangle
Apr. 27, 2006
U.S. District Judge Raner Collins used a few more words than that. But he
couldn't have been clearer in ruling Wednesday on the Legislature's plan to fund
Arizona has been under a court order for six years to provide an adequate system
of teaching English to students who don't grasp the language.
And the Legislature's plan doesn't cut it.
Republicans have been fuming for nearly a year as Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed
various versions of their plan for being too stingy. The governor, they said,
should let the judge decide if the plan is adequate.
Napolitano finally stood aside, allowing the plan to become law.
And the judge decided. No.
His reasons are straightforward and on the mark.
• The Legislature provided only a tiny increase in per-student spending, $77,
with no rationale for why it picked that amount.
• The plan required school districts to divert federal funding to basic
language instruction, breaking the rules for using that money.
• The Legislature's two-year limit on English-language instruction,
regardless of whether a student progresses, violated federal law.
Judge Collins did lawmakers a favor by ruling promptly. They still have time
this session to go back and get it right.
Legislators wrote their previous plan under the legal and financial gun.
Collins held the state in contempt for missing deadlines to fund English
instruction adequately, and Arizona was racking up millions of dollars in
The fines stopped when Napolitano decided to allow the Legislature's
proposal to become law without her signature. And now the 9th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals has stayed the fines until it can consider Superintendent
of Public Instruction Tom Horne's appeal of the contempt ruling.
Eventually, Horne hopes to overturn the original decision in 2000 that
Arizona's funding for language learning is arbitrary, capricious and
What a tempting escape hatch for legislators. Just wait, and maybe that
legal gun will be unloaded.
Except, Arizona still has some 150,000 students who need to learn English.
Except, the state's economic future depends on the success of our students.
And they can't learn subjects if they don't understand the teacher and
Horne argues that "The Legislature shouldn't do anything until we find out
what the 9th Circuit says. It will say what the applicable order is, and
what needs to be done."
The question may still have a long trip through the courts. But overall, we
know what needs to be done: Figure out the best way to teach English to
students. And pay for it.
The Legislature has made a start on the groundwork.
Judge Collins considered that lawmakers had made a step forward in proposing
a task force to develop and adopt research-based models for English
instruction. Horne is an enthusiastic supporter of this sensible approach.
But lawmakers must take the next step of specifying that the models will be
The final step, as Collins pointed out, is to calculate the per-student cost
of adopting the models. And then supply it.
That doesn't mean jettisoning the idea of accountability, a point on which
Napolitano's proposals have been a bit weak.
Legislators are justifiably concerned about creating financial incentives
for schools to keep students in language classes. Surely they can find a
better way than an arbitrary cutoff period or reams of red tape.
Arizona's future workforce is sitting in the classroom today. Do we need an
effective, efficient way to make sure every student has the language tools
to succeed? You don't need a judge to figure out the answer. Yes.