Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Time a constant rub in handling of English instruction case

A class-action lawsuit demanding that Arizona increase funding for the instruction of students learning English is all about money.

But the time to resolve the issue is another constant subject of debate in the case, particularly with a judge threatening to impose sanctions against the state if the Legislature didn’t act by a deadline Tuesday.

The judge on Monday scheduled a hearing for next week in Tucson on legislators’ request for an extension, attorneys said.

The case centers on approximately 130,000 students enrolled in English Language Learning programs in Arizona public schools.

The original lawsuit was filed in 1992, meaning the case now “has been in the courts longer than it takes a student to go from kindergarten to college,” a federal appeals court noted in a Feb. 22 ruling.

A federal judge who has since retired issued the pre-eminent order in the case, ruling in 2000 that the state needs to do more because its programs fall short of federal mandates for equal opportunities in English.

In the years since, the case has been marked by political false starts and legal dead ends as school districts and state officials argued over what must and should be done.

Prodded by the judge now on the case, lawmakers enacted a 2006 law to revamp the programs and their funding according to a new system of paying for districts’ implementation of new state-approved instructional models.

The models were supposed to have been approved by the fall of 2006 but that timetable immediately fell apart, with approval finally occurring a year later in the fall of 2007.

“The task force took an extra year because they wanted very thorough research to support what they did,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, a supporter and architect of the new approach.

After the models were eventually approved last fall, Horne’s department provided training sessions to explain the new system to district officials and set a Feb. 8 deadline for applications for state funding.

Districts submitted their requests but Horne said many did so at the last minute, with many submitting “pie in the sky” requests that delayed processing with requests for money to cover expenses not allowed under the law.

That made it impossible for the Legislature to consider the funding requests by Tuesday’s deadline, Republican legislative leaders argued in a motion asking for more time.

The leaders blamed the plaintiffs’ lawyer for part of the time crunch, accusing attorney Tim Hogan of providing “incorrect and inappropriate advice” to districts.

Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, scoffed at the criticism.

“I told districts to apply for their incremental ELL costs. The problem with the department’s budget request is that they only want to allow for budget requests for over and above what you’re spending currently. That’s what this whole case is about.”

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