Judge throws out Arizona English learners case

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PHOENIX (AP) — A federal judge ruled Friday that Arizona has made vast gains in teaching foreign students English and is no longer violating a federal law requiring states to overcome language barriers in schools, resolving a decades-old discrimination lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins' ruling states that the case originally filed in 1992 on behalf of children and parents in the Nogales School District no longer has statewide reach because Arizona's recently crafted English language program varies from county to county. Collins' ruling comes more than two years after he heard evidence in the case.

In previous rulings, Collins and a now-retired judge ordered increased spending for students learning English. But a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2009 said the state's overhauled education policies were entitled to a fresh legal review.

The outcome marks a sharp blow for education and Hispanic advocates who had argued for decades that Arizona was deliberately providing insufficient education to non-English speaking students. But Collins still had harsh words for state officials.

"It appears that the state has made a choice in how it wants to spend funds on teaching students the English language," he wrote in the ruling. "It may turn out to be penny wise and pound foolish, as at the end of the day, speaking English, and not having other educational gains in science, math, etc., will still leave some children behind. However, this lawsuit is no longer the vehicle to pursue the myriad of educational issues in this state."

Plaintiffs' attorney Tim Hogan said Collins' criticism of the state only made his ruling that more confusing.

"That doesn't do us any good and in fact it seems a little inconsistent to me," said Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. "If the program is not complying with the law then he shouldn't have ruled the way he did. I don't understand it. And I don't understand why this ruling would take two years."

Arizona officials had argued that the lawsuit did not have a statewide claim because the state's English learners program is implemented differently across school districts and schools. Under the program, students are exposed to four hours of English development training each day, but some schools teach the four hours consecutively, while others break it into smaller increments throughout the school day.

Arizona has made many education changes since the 2000 ruling that found its English instruction discriminatory, including new English immersion programs, management reforms, increased education funding and the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, which set English language performance standards, the ruling found.

The ruling also noted that the Nogales School District has improved independently from the state, with adequate teaching materials in all subjects, more funding, small classroom sizes, better paid teachers and after-school tutoring.

The plaintiffs presented evidence from only a few school districts and did not establish that English learner programs statewide were inadequate, Collins ruled.

"Plaintiffs have failed to prove that defendants' implementation of the four-hour model was driven by a deliberate intent to discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin," Collins added. "Grouping by proficiency is not segregation."

But critics of Arizona's English immersion instruction argue that it's "unlawful segregation." They say it's impossible for students to understand science and social studies courses taught in English if they are not English proficient. They also argue that students subjected to four hours of English instruction every day are missing out on regular subjects, such as math, taught to other students.

Collins seemed to agree to some extent.

"The state does not require school districts to provide ELL (English language learner) students with an opportunity to recover the academic content that they missed while they were in the four-hour model and makes no effort to determine whether ELL students have been deprived of academic content as a result of being placed in four hours of ELD (English language development)," the ruling said.

Hogan said Collins contradicted himself.

"I don't understand why he doesn't think that's a violation of the law," Hogan said. "This is segregation for most of the school day and he acknowledges that these kids don't get academic content and the state doesn't do anything about it. So that's a violation of the law."

Since 2000, the two sides have fought over what constitutes compliance. At one point, Collins imposed more than $20 million in daily fines on the state for noncompliance. The fines were later rescinded on appeal.


Cristina Silva can be reached at .

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