SAN FRANCISCO - The attorney for Republican legislative leaders argued Tuesday that lawmakers have done all they need to do to comply with federal laws requiring the state to ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn English.
In fact, David Cantelme told the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that lawmakers could also repeal a 2006 law aimed at providing more funds to help schools teach students not proficient in English.
Cantelme said Arizona schools are complying with the federal No Child Left Behind law, which is designed to ensure schools improve education. He argued the state is also complying with the federal Equal Education Opportunity Act, the law a judge first concluded nearly eight years ago the state was violating.
But Judge Marcia Berzon, heading the three-judge panel hearing the case, said Cantelme is confusing the laws.
She said the law says states must provide “an appropriate education now for each child.” By contrast, she said, No Child Left Behind simply measures overall progress of schools in raising academic achievement, something Berzon called a “more aspirational” goal of better education sometime in the future.
Hanging in the balance is how much more — if anything — Arizona taxpayers will have to provide to ensure the approximately 135,000 youngsters classified as “English-language learners” become proficient.
Two federal judges have concluded that Arizona is not providing sufficient funds.
The Republican-controlled Legislature voted in 2006 to come up with “models” of how English should be taught through English immersion programs, with a promise to provide the funds each district says it needs.
That funding has yet to occur, a point which U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins cited two months ago in holding the state in contempt. And Collins said the funding comes with illegal strings, including a two-year limit on extra cash for each student.
Collins gave lawmakers until March 4 to fix the law and come up with the cash.
On Tuesday, Cantelme argued lawmakers don’t need to comply with that law.
He said students in the Nogales Unified School District, the district where the original parents who sued in 1992 are from, now learn English with the funds the state already provides. He said that means the court orders and the contempt citation should be thrown out, without lawmakers providing any additional funds.
Tim Hogan, attorney for the parents, said English learners in most Nogales schools still are not performing on par with those whose native language is English. Hogan said the trial court declared Arizona’s funding scheme for English learners illegal and directed lawmakers to fix it for the entire state, not just Nogales.
Arizona now provides about $365 a year for each English learner on top of basic state aid for all students. Trial judges have repeatedly ruled there is no evidence to show that is enough.
Berzon also noted that officials from several school districts filed a legal brief saying they still don’t have enough money.
But Eric Bistrow, attorney for state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, brushed that aside.
“School districts want more money,” he said. “That’s what it’s about.”
How much is at issue is unclear. Hogan said a study lawmakers commissioned from the National Conference of State Legislatures found the average cost was about $1,800 a student, a figure that would add close to $200 million a year to state education costs.
The appellate judges suggested the sides might try mediating the dispute rather than continue battling in court.
But the attorneys all said they are not sure a negotiated deal is possible, given the politics and the amount of money involved.