PHOENIX - State education officials will no longer force schools to retrain or reassign English-immersion teachers because they speak with an accent.
In an agreement with two federal agencies, the Arizona Department of Education will stop trying to single out teachers who they believe do not have a good command of the English language - a practice that resulted in complaints the state was illegally discriminating against teachers because they are Hispanic or are not native-English speakers.
But Andrew LeFevre, spokesman for the state agency, said that does not mean schools are free to hire whomever they want.
Instead, LeFevre said, the settlement with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education simply takes the state education agency out of the mix. LeFevre said it will now be up to local school districts to certify their instructors for these classes are, in fact, fluent.
State School Superintendent John Huppenthal agreed to the settlement even though, LeFevre said, Huppenthal doesn't believe anything done was improperly.
Nor does state Attorney General Tom Horne, who was state schools chief when the investigation began more than a year ago.
The problem, according to the federal attorneys, is that evaluations of teachers were often "subjective."
For example, the federal agencies said, state officials noted one teacher pronounced "the" as "da." Different teachers pronounced "another" as "anudder" and "lives here" came out as "leeves here."
Based on that, schools were required to create plans to correct the problems. Otherwise qualified teachers were removed from classes. The federal attorneys said the state policy forced schools to take action even where school officials did not have concerns about the teachers' English fluency.
LeFevre said that federal law still requires teachers be fluent - it just removes the state from having to make the determination.
Ignacio Ruiz, director of language acquisition for Tucson Unified School District, said his schools have not had any problems with the state, but he applauded the change.
Ruiz said the district recognizes the importance of teachers using proper grammar and that students understand what is being taught. But he said having an accent does not impair learning.
"There are many teachers with accents in many classrooms across the state," Ruiz said. "I know from my personal experience as a principal that students can do well in that setting."
Alexis Huicochea of the Arizona Daily Star contributed to this story.