A federal judge ruled Arizona is discriminating against students with limited English skills by skimping on funding for them.
As a result, many students with limited English proficiency are instructed by unqualified teachers – a violation of federal law.
Judge Alfredo Marquez of U.S. District Court in Tucson made the ruling Monday on a class-action lawsuit filed against the state by Nogales Unified School District parents.
Marquez declined to throw out the AIMS high school graduation test, which was also challenged on the basis that it discriminates against minority students.
It’s now up to the Legislature to adequately fund bilingual education and English as a Second Language programs.
The ruling set no deadline.
Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-Phoenix, is hoping the ruling will spur lawmakers to support his proposal to boost funding for the state’s 113,000 students with limited English proficiency.
His bill seeks $621 per limited-English student, costing a total of about $60 million. The state currently gives schools roughly $150 extra to educate those children.
“It’s an excellent first set of steps,” said Bill Morris, attorney for the Nogales parents. “It would go far in the right direction.”
But lawmakers have little money to put into more popular education initiatives, such as an extended school year and programs to help students pass the graduation test.
Programs like bilingual education are not at the top of the Republican-controlled Legislature’s list. Some lawmakers believe they deserve less money, not more.
Sen. John Huppenthal, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the current system rewards schools for failure. Districts receive the extra money until those students pass a series of tests proving they have mastered English.
Huppenthal, R-Chandler, said he has yet to decide if his committee will consider Lopez’s bill.
“Now we have to take this lemon ruling and we’ll see if can make some lemonade out of it,” Huppenthal said.
Lisa Graham Keegan, state superintendent of public instruction, supports increased funding for limited-English students, but does not plan to lobby for new money this session, said her spokeswoman, Patricia Likens.
In the August trial on the 7-year-old case, the plaintiffs brought up a 1988 study that showed it cost districts at least $450 per student then to educate limited-English students.
Marquez ruled that the $150 the state pays is “arbitrary and capricious.”
“(The) state has failed to follow through with practices, resources and personnel necessary to transform theory into reality,” the ruling states.
Because of the shortage of funding, the Nogales district has few qualified teachers, crowded classes, inadequate tutoring and insufficient materials, the ruling states. About 60 percent of Nogales’ 6,000 students are classified as limited in English proficiency.
Although state law requires teachers of limited-English students to undergo special training, about 160 of the district’s 300 teachers are qualified. The district regularly kicks in money from other areas to pay for bilingual-education programs.
Analizabeth Doan, Nogales’ bilingual-education director, said she hopes the ruling will pour more money into the district and others. That will help mostly with teacher training and recruiting.
“It’s a beginning after seven years,” Doan said. “It is a beginning, hopefully, of a change in the state.”
Other districts, including Tucson Unified, would also benefit from the ruling. About 11,000 students among the district’s 64,000 are limited in English skills.
Leonard Basurto, TUSD’s bilingual-education director, said the argument that districts keep students in programs to get extra money is wrong. On the contrary, TUSD regularly puts more money than the state gives into bilingual education.
“The ruling is saying precisely that – that it’s costing school districts more to fund these programs than the state is providing,” Basurto said. “So the argument is completely negated by this court ruling.”
On the other argument in the case, Marquez ruled there was insufficient evidence that Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, the test that high school seniors will have to pass to graduate, is biased against minority students.
At the time of the August trial, the first results of AIMS had yet to be released.
So the plaintiffs relied on a study of Stanford 9 standardized test scores of minority students in Phoenix Union High School District, which the judge stated “does not provide a meaningful comparison.”
The AIMS results released in November, though, clearly show minorities performed worse than Anglos. About 3 percent of black, Hispanic and American Indian sophomores passed the 12th-grade level math test, compared with about 14 percent of Anglos.
Although Marquez ruled in favor of AIMS this time, Morris said he is contemplating filing another lawsuit to challenge it, using the results.
“I think that’s the core evidence that the judge was looking for,” Morris said.
Education reporter Sarah Tully Tapia can be reached at 573-4117 and by e-mail: [email protected]