State wants more time for action on English instruction

PHOENIX—State officials want a federal judge to give them more time to improve instruction for English-learning students instead of granting a request by lawsuit plaintiffs for a deadline they say could lead to “draconian sanctions.”

A court-ordered cost study “ultimately raises as many questions as it answers,” pointing up “huge disparities” in costs of model programs for English-learners while not making any specific recommendations, a lawyer for the officials wrote in legal papers filed Friday.

“Certainly from a statewide perspective, the study sheds more light on the complexity of the problem than on its solution,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Elliot Talenfeld. “It is obvious from even a cursory review of this data that the Legislature could not have conscientiously have acted on the study in the just-adjourned session.”

Talenfeld was responding on behalf of state Superintendent Jaime Molera and the state Board of Education after the lawsuit plaintiffs asked U.S. District Judge Alfredo C. Marquez last week to set an Aug. 1 deadline for the state to act.

Marquez previously ruled in the lawsuit, filed by parents against the state and Nogales Unified School District, that the state’s programs for English-learning students are inadequate, violating a federal law on equal opportunities in education.

Talenfeld suggested Marquez next hold a hearing in August, but a lawyer for the lawsuit plaintiffs said late Friday he had been notified that Marquez has scheduled one next Friday in Tucson.

Attorney Tim Hogan had noted in the deadline request that the Legislature took no action on the issue during its 2001 regular session which ended earlier this month. If Marquez sets a deadline and the state does not meet it, the judge could consider ordering that federal highway dollars be withheld or that public schools be closed, Hogan added.

Such steps would be “draconian federal sanctions,” the state’s reply said. “It would be “more constructive for the parties to work together toward what ultimately must be a political solution, one that responds to the findings of this court, to the cost study, to Proposition 203 and to the realities of the legislative-political process.”

Molera just took office in May and “deserves an opportunity” to craft a solution in consultation with Hull and legislative leaders, the state’s reply said.

In another development, Hogan said lawmakers would be going astray if they pursue a suggestion to improve instruction by providing additional money to districts on a case-by-case basis.

There could be grants for different programs, Hogan wrote Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Ruth Solomon, D-Tucson. “However, adequate funding must first be provided to every school district to meet the minimum needs of its limited English proficient students as determined by federal law.”

Solomon helped organize a new legislative effort to try to find a way to bolster programs for English-learners at an affordable cost while avoiding possible sanctions against the state.

Hogan’s letter to Solomon on Thursday was prompted by a news story by The Associated Press on the group’s first meeting, held Wednesday.

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