English-learner suit dismissed after 21 years

Saying AZ has done enough, judge tosses 21-year-old complaint
2013-03-30T00:00:00Z English-learner suit dismissed after 21 yearsHoward Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star
March 30, 2013 12:00 am  • 

PHOENIX - Saying the state has done all that is legally required, a federal judge on Friday threw out a 21-year-old lawsuit claiming Arizona does not do enough to ensure all students have an opportunity to learn English.

On the surface, the ruling by Judge Raner Collins rejects the contention by challengers it is not enough for the state to offer special four-hour "immersion" courses for students who are not proficient. Collins said that model for teaching meets the requirements of federal education laws.

But the decision also voids a 2000 ruling by another federal judge who concluded Arizona was not meeting its obligations under the Equal Education Opportunity Act. That law requires states to ensure all students have an opportunity to learn, an opportunity that specifically requires states to take "appropriate action" to help them become proficient in English.

In dismissing the case and ruling the state is now doing, and spending, enough to meet the legal requirements to teach English, the judge acknowledged the state has shifted around funds, and may be short-changing other programs. But he said that is not the concern of the court.

"Education in this state is under enormous pressure because of lack of funding at all levels," Collins wrote. And he said it appears Arizona has made its choices on how it wants to spend funds on teaching students the English language.

"It may turn out to be penny wise and pound foolish, as at the end of the day, speaking English, and not having other educational gains in science, math, etc. will still leave some children behind," the judge wrote. "However, this lawsuit is no longer the vehicle to pursue the myriad of educational issues in this state."

At last count there were 88,620 ELL students in Arizona public schools, both district and charter, out of slightly more than one million enrolled.

Attorney Tim Hogan, who represents parents who filed the initial lawsuit in 1992, said he is studying the ruling and has not decided whether to appeal.

But Attorney General Tom Horne said Friday's ruling vindicates his backing when he was state school superintendent of the teaching methods that Collins concluded comply with federal law.

Central to the case is the federal Equal Education Opportunity Act.

In the wake of the 2000 ruling Arizona was violating that law, legislators tinkered with the funding formula which gives schools extra money to aid those who need extra help in learning English. Each time, however, the court rejected it as not providing the cash adequate to do the job.

In 2009, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Collins overstepped his authority.

The justices said Collins took testimony of how well students were performing in Nogales where the lawsuit originated, and then used that to order Arizona to do more statewide. The high court sent the case back to Collins telling him he cannot mandate more state action unless he gets evidence of statewide violations.

The current state plan sets up teaching "models" for all schools to follow, which include putting affected students into separate classes for four hours a day where the only thing taught is English.

Hogan charged, among other things, the separate classes amount to unlawful segregation.

But Collins, in Friday's ruling, said Hogan never proved that the state's implementation of the four-hour classes "was driven by a deliberate intent to discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin." And the judge said federal law leaves it to state or local authorities whether to do "immersion" programs like this or "bilingual" programs where students learning English remain in regular classes that are taught in both languages.

"In light of the evidence presented, the court finds that the structured English immersion method and the four-hour model are valid educational theories," Collins wrote.

The judge also said the record shows students in Nogales, the subject of the original lawsuit, are doing much better. He acknowledged, though, that appears to be "due to the actions taken by the district itself, and not those taken by the state."

But the judge said he cannot ignore changes that have taken place since the original lawsuit was filed in 1992. These include the federal No Child Left Behind law as well as implementation of the AIMS tests designed to measure student achievement at various grade levels as well as serve as a way of determining if seniors have learned all they need to get a diploma.

"Education in this state is under enormous pressure because of lack of funding at all levels."

Raner Collins, U.S. district judge

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