English—Learning Case Back In Court

Howard Fischer, Arizona Daily Star, July 24, 2006

Phoenix—The state’s top education official is hoping three federal judges quash a Tucson judge’s order that could force Arizona to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to teach English.

Tom Horne is taking his case to San Francisco on Tuesday, hoping the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will overturn a ruling by District Judge Raner Collins that Arizona isn’t spending enough to comply with federal laws requiring it to make sure all students learn English.

Tuesday’s fight is the latest in a lawsuit dating to 1992, when parents in the Nogales Unified School District sued, saying their children weren’t learning English.

More than 150,000 youngsters in Arizona schools—one out of every seven in the system—come from homes where English isn’t the primary language and are not yet proficient in English. That includes nearly 8,300 in Tucson Unified and nearly 5,900 in Sunnyside Unified districts, which figure to be heavily affected financially.

Tim Hogan, who represents parents who filed the original lawsuit 14 years ago, wants the judges to leave Collins’ ruling intact.

More to the point, he wants the appellate court to let Collins once again give state lawmakers a deadline to come up with a plan—one the judge finds acceptable. And he wants the state, which already is facing $22 million in fines for being slow to adopt the last plan, to face additional penalties if legislators again drag their heels.

It took eight years for a federal judge to rule on the original case that the extra money the state was providing to teach English—then $150 a year per student—was insufficient. He ordered the state to figure out what it takes to do the job right and come up with more.

The latest plan boosts that figure to $432. But Hogan argued, and Collins agreed, that there was no basis for that figure. In fact, the judge noted that figure was $18 less than what was proposed in a cost study done 18 years earlier.

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Wrapped up in the debate is the question of illegal immigration.

Hogan said the majority of these youngsters are U.S. citizens by virtue of having been born in this country. But other figures from the Pew Hispanic Center suggest that many, if not most, are children of illegal immigrants—meaning they would not have been born here except for the fact that their parents crossed the border illegally.

All of that, though, is legally irrelevant. Federal law requires states to provide a public school education to all youngsters who live within a district, regardless of legal status.

Horne said the issue before the court goes beyond money and even the issue of teaching English.

“What’s at stake here is our system of government,” he said. “Judges should not be determining how much we tax ourselves and what to spend it on.”

Hogan, however, said Collins has never told the state it must spend a specific number of dollars. Instead, he said, the judge told the state to figure out how to comply with the federal laws designed to ensure all children have an equal opportunity to learn.

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The state Attorney General’s Office will represent the governor’s viewpoint that although she allowed the legislative plan to take effect earlier this year without her signature, she, like Hogan, believes it is legally insufficient to put the state in compliance with federal law.

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