State education officials will no longer force schools to retrain - or reassign - English immersion teachers because they speak with an accent.
In an agreement with two federal agencies, the Arizona Department of Education will stop trying to single out teachers it believes do not have a good command of the English language. That practice resulted in complaints that the state was illegally discriminating against teachers solely because they are Hispanic or are not native-English speakers.
But Andrew LeFevre, spokesman for the state agency, said that does not mean schools are necessarily free to hire whoever they want.
Instead, LeFevre said, the settlement with the U.S. departments of justice and education simply takes the state education agency out of the mix. LeFevre said it will now be up to local school districts to certify that their instructors for these classes are, in fact, fluent.
However, the change agreed to by state Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal will end what federal attorneys said were purely subjective decisions being made by state inspectors - decisions that had real impacts on teachers who were singled out.
LeFevre said Huppenthal does not believe anything done was improper. That also is the assessment of state Attorney General Tom Horne, who was state school superintendent when the investigation began more than a year ago.
At the heart of the issue are two laws.
A state statute defines an "English language classroom" as one where English is the language of instruction where "such teaching personnel possess a good knowledge of the English language." And the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that schools certify that teachers who provide instruction for children of limited English proficiency are "fluent in English and any other language used for instruction, including having written and oral communications skills."
The problem, according to the federal attorneys, is how all that was monitored by state officials who visited the schools. They said the evaluations of teachers were often "subjective."
For example, the federal agencies said, state officials documented instances where one teacher pronounced the word "the" as "da." In a separate incident, a teacher pronounced "another" as "anuder" and "lives here" came out as "leeves here."
Based on that, schools were required to create plans to correct the problems, with complaints that otherwise qualified teachers were removed from classes.
The federal attorneys said the state's policy forced schools to take action even where school officials did not have concerns about the teachers' English fluency and had already assessed the teachers' English fluency using objective measures.
LeFevre said that federal law still requires teachers to be fluent.
"It's just who has authority to guarantee that teachers are fluent," he said. More to the point, LeFevre said it won't be the state education department.
That pleases some local school officials.
Kathy Bareiss, spokeswoman for the Mesa Unified School District, said issues of accent are secondary.
"Generally, when we hire a teacher, we're going to hire the best teacher for that specific position," she said. "If the teacher is good at what they do and they're highly qualified, we would keep that teacher."
Ignacio Ruiz, director of language acquisition for Tucson Unified School District, said his schools have not had any problems with the state. But he said it was "great" that the state Department of Education was scrapping the policy.
Ruiz said the district recognizes the importance of teachers using proper grammar and that students understand what is being taught. But he said having an accent does not impair learning.
"There are many teachers with accents in many classrooms across the state," Ruiz said. "I know from my personal experience as a principal that students can do well in that setting."
Ruiz also said that each of the teachers has been certified by the state.
Horne told Capitol Media Services that the agency he used to run did nothing improper.
"Whenever our observers saw a teacher teaching that was not qualified to do so, we would bring it to the attention of the district," he said. "They would always correct it."
He said that in all - or almost all - cases, the teachers were given additional training "so their English improved."
"There may have been some cases where they were reassigned to other classes," Horne said. "But as far as I know, no one was ever fired."
Amy Fountain, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of Arizona, said all the concerns about whether accents harm the ability of children to learn English are misplaced.
"If a person has a foreign accent or a regional accent that is so thick as to cause a genuine barrier to communication, that's certainly a problem," she said. But Fountain said that was not the case where the state Department of Education was going after teachers.
"It benefits children acquiring any variety of English or any other language to hear a wide variety of accents while they're learning whatever their target language is," she said.
"Students in classrooms are hearing the language of their teacher," Fountain said. "But they're also watching television, they're also listening to the radio," all of which she said exposes children to what she calls "broadcast standard" English.
Alexis Huicochea of the Arizona Daily Star and Michelle Reese of the East Valley Tribune contributed to this story.