State legislative leaders made a mistake last week by immediately appealing the latest ruling from a federal judge that Arizona has to spend more money to teach English to students of immigrant families.
We understand the frustration of lawmakers who are tired of critics seeking ever-higher dollar amounts to satisfy a seven-year-old court decision against the state in a 15-year-old lawsuit. But the Legislature’s current plan to adequately teach English language learners includes a couple of side issues that appear to clearly violate federal law and needlessly complicate any resolution to this case. The Legislature should fix these problems first to make it easier to confront the fundamental question of just how much say a vague federal mandate should have over the state’s fiscal priorities.
Since the federal court ruled against the state in 2000, the Legislature has increased spending by $210 per student, or by $28.35 million this year. But lawmakers discovered there’s no generally accepted method for the “right” way to quickly teach English to Spanish-speaking kids, so there’s no concrete way to determine how much money the state should be spending. Backers of the lawsuit argue it should be as much as $162 million more, but they are relying on the upper end of a range of estimates from education experts.
Still, the federal court decided in late 2005 the Legislature had failed to come up with a clear plan to end the state’s deficiencies. So Judge Raner Collins assessed fines that reached more than $21 million until the Legislature adopted a new law last year that offers still more money but also tries to limit the final cost to taxpayers.
Collins ruled last week those limits have compounded the state’s mistakes. First, the new law says school districts must count all of their federal grants toward English language learner programs before they can apply for more state funds. But federal rules are clear that federal funds are supposed to provide extra assistance for students facing unusual challenges, and can’t be used to pay for state obligations. And like it or not, Arizona is under a mandate to help Spanish-speaking students.
A second problem is the Legislature said school districts can receive funding for only the first two years that English learners are enrolled, when most experts agree some students will need longer to become proficient.
After being rebuked by Collins last week, legislative leaders decided to ask the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to intervene again. The appellate court was sympathetic last year to lawmakers, throwing out the $21 million in fines and ordering Collins to reconsider the 2000 ruling. The higher court noted a number of issues have changed since then, including the fact that Nogales has made a remarkable turnaround and its students are now doing better than the statewide average.
But we doubt the Ninth Circuit will overlook the Legislature’s attempts to switch federal money for state funds and to artificially dictate how fast children must learn. Removing these issues from the state law would allow Arizona to go back to court with clean hands and a much stronger argument that this 15-year-old lawsuit should come to an end.
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