We know this came as a shock to some of its Republican critics, but the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals has injected some common sense into the debate about Arizona’s support, or lack thereof, for the education of students who don’t speak English as their first language.
The appellate court intervened in a 14-year-old lawsuit that claims Arizona has failed to adequately fund English language learner programs. A federal judge said this was true in 2000, but the case has continued as the lawyers, various state officials and two trial judges have argued about exactly much additional money is needed.
A three-judge panel said Thursday that U.S. District Judge Raner Collins was wrong to find the state was in contempt of court after the Arizona Legislature and Gov. Janet Napolitano didn’t comply last year with his order to come up with a final plan to boost state dollars for local school districts. Collins imposed daily fines of $1 million to pressure Napolitano and lawmakers. The total amount of the fines reached $21 million before Napolitano finally allowed to go into law, without her signature, a Republican-crafted proposal heavily criticized by Democrats.
But the 9th Circuit said Collins shouldn’t have held the state in contempt last year until he considered what the state already had changed in education policy for English learners since 2000.
In that time, Arizona voters have decided by initiative to require language immersion instead of bilingual instruction for English learners. The Legislature raised special school district funding from $150 for each English learner to the current $355. And Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards and No Child Left Behind went into effect, providing new incentives for local schools to excel at teaching these students or risk state and federal sanctions.
There is no magic dollar amount that will suddenly bring English learners to the same level as their peers. We also must hold schools accountable for adopting the best instruction techniques and provide parents more school choices because different children have different learning needs.
The 9th Circuit didn’t reach an opinion on whether the new English learner plan resolves the fundamental issues of the original lawsuit. But it’s clear Collins will have to reconsider his rejection of the latest plan as he evaluates for the first time what the state has been doing recently.