Attorneys for state lawmakers are asking for more time before a federal judge decides whether to hold their clients in contempt of court and fine the state millions of dollars for failing to adequately fund English instruction programs in schools.
It has been seven years since a judge first ruled Arizona was not complying with federal laws that require states to ensure all students have an opportunity to learn English.
And David Cantelme, one of the attorneys hired by Republican legislative leaders, did not dispute that lawmakers ignored an order just this past March by Judge Raner Collins to come up with a new funding plan by the end of the legislative session. Lawmakers went home in June without changing the law.
Cantelme told Collins on Monday, though, work is being done.
He pointed out that the Legislature commissioned a task force that has adopted “models” of exactly how English should be taught to students who come to school speaking another language. Those models now are being reviewed by school districts.
“We are so close now,” Cantelme told the judge.
But attorney Tim Hogan, who represents parents who first filed suit against the state in 1992, said Collins will need to set a deadline soon to ensure real action.
He said lawyers for the state originally promised those models would be evaluated last September. Then, during hearings in January, the vow was made to have them done in March.
“So I think they’re just throwing up anything they can in an effort to delay this proceeding further,” he said.
Hogan said even if the models are completed, nothing guarantees the Legislature will come up with the necessary cash to implement the program statewide.
He wants Collins to give lawmakers an October deadline to fund plan that complies with federal law or face fines starting at half a million dollars a day. Otherwise, he said yet another school year will go by without adequate resources.
Arizona currently provides schools with an extra $360 a year for each of the approximately 135,000 students classified as “English language learners.”
The judge has used fines before to get his orders obeyed. Last year, after lawmakers missed a deadline for crafting a new law, he imposed $21 million in penalties.
But those were overturned by an appellate court that ordered Collins to take another look at what lawmakers have adopted. That led to a hearing in January, and his March order still finding the state out of compliance and setting the end-of-session deadline that lawmakers ignored.