Legislative move to bolster bilingual education fails

PHOENIX – As state officials try to settle a partially successful lawsuit that challenges bilingual education programs as inadequate, legislative efforts to move in the same direction stalled.

The Senate Education Committee rejected a bill (SB1242) on Thursday that would have bolstered English learning programs to help implement the proposed settlement.

That leaves state officials still negotiating proposed requirements for the Department of Education and local school districts to add new testing, monitoring and other requirements but without new funding to pay for them.

“This would have moved us forward,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan said.

The proposed settlement would resolve portions of the lawsuit not covered by a federal judge’s ruling last week that Arizona is underfunding bilingual education in violation of federal laws on civil rights and equal opportunities in education.

Keegan said the state will not appeal the ruling by U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez in Tucson.

The state’s lawyer in the lawsuit, Assistant Attorney General Lynne C. Adams, told the committee Marquez did not order the state to increase funding but may be asked to do so by the lawsuit plaintiffs.

In cases elsewhere, federal judges have ordered states to raise taxes to pay for certain things, Adams said.

The bill rejected by the Senate committee would have quadrupled the state’s current $18 million funding of bilingual education. It also would have adopted new requirements on the same areas as the proposed settlement and many others, including parents’ rights.

The committee’s 4-5 vote was by party lines, majority Republicans voting against the bill and minority Democrats for it.

Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, said he objected to increased state mandates at the expense of local control.

Sen. Ken Bennett criticized a state funding system that he said leads to labeling of students.

“We’re already taking (funding) from some students somewhere to deliver the services to these students,” said Bennett, a Prescott Republican and a former president of the state Board of Education.

Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, a Phoenix Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said other lawmakers’ money concerns are legitimate.

“Nevertheless, it is a civil rights issue,” Lopez said. “It puts a burden on school districts whether we pass this legislation or not.”

Keegan said after the hearing she supported the bill but that Huppenthal had asked that she not testify on its behalf.

She said the bill’s failure means the issue is being decided in the courts, not at the Legislature.

The draft settlement is a proposed consent order that would be submitted to Marquez for his approval once finished. It would set specific test scores to determine whether a student needs bilingual education. It also would strengthen requirements for learning plans for individual students and would have the state assess at least 22 districts’ programs each year.

Adams and William F. Morris, a lawyer for the Nogales families who filed the lawsuit, said in separate interviews earlier this week that the biggest unresolved issue centers on teacher training.

The plaintiffs want teachers of bilingual education students to have special training and certification, but the state has balked.

There is a shortage of bilingual education teachers, and some rural and poor districts have trouble competing for the available supply, Adams said.

State officials, she said, “don’t want to agree to something they don’t have the ability to meet.”

Morris said the shortage of bilingual education teachers is related to money. “We think we have the answer to that question” with Marquez’s ruling, he said.

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