In a border state with 113,000 students who speak only limited English, the need for special instruction is obvious. What hasn’t been so obvious is how the state has avoided providing the students proper schooling for so long.

A U.S. District Court judge ruled Tuesday that the state underfunds bilingual and English as a Second Language programs in an “arbitrary and capricious” way. Legislators immediately began rumbling about the lack of state money.

Yet a Phoenix lawmaker, Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, sees hope that the judge’s clear finding will help his bill to boost funding for limited- English students from $162 per student to $621. It’s a reasonable request to make of the state’s education coffers, considering the cost was pegged at $450 per student in a study 11 years ago.

With only $150 per student coming from the state, the rest is made up with federal funds. Where that falls short, local school districts, grants and contributions pick up the difference.

It’s time to put this educational requirement where it belongs – as part of state-funded education.

That won’t be easy because the Legislature is on a two-year budget cycle, and for this year, there’s only about $36 million left to appropriate. Under Lopez’s bill, English as a Second Language funding alone would need from $18 million to $40 million a year. Bilingual education would require $60 million a year.

Two years ago, $361 million was spent statewide on teaching students English, but only $15 million of it came from state funds. To do the job right would cost several times that.

At least the judge’s ruling clarified what educators have known for years – that limited-English students need more resources to be able to assimilate into the mainstream and acquire job skills that will make them more self-sufficient. It also ruled that the state has violated civil rights and equal education opportunity laws. But there was no timetable for a remedy.

It took seven years after a lawsuit filed on behalf of a Nogales mother to reach this point of judicial wisdom. Carrying out Lopez’s bill, if it passes, will be a Herculean task, too. Bilingual education does not sit well with many Republican legislators who want less, not more, money dedicated to it.

Sen. John Huppenthal, a Chandler Republican, doesn’t know if the committee he chairs, the Senate Education Committee, will even hear the bill.

The judge did not rule on another aspect of the lawsuit, one which claims Arizona’s Aims to Measure Standards test is biased against minority students. Results of the first AIMS test hadn’t been released yet when the judge ruled. This is an issue that may return to the courts.

For now we know with legal certainty that Arizona has not done well by its English-deficient students, and there can be no more dodging their needs.

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