Horne Puts Ell Funding On Hold

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Payson School District's intent to use upcoming state funding to help students struggling to learn English has been put on hold.

The setback occurred in mid-week when Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne filed an appeal asking the court to set aside U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins' decision to return $21 million in court fines to Arizona schools.

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Students, including Eber Valenzuela and Janeth Antillon, in Trina Gunzel's fourth-grade ELL classroom at Julia Randall School will be among those affected by an appeal recently filed that will stop some English-learners funding from being funneled into the Payson School District.

When Collins made his March 17 decision to return the money to districts around the state, he asked that schools immediately receive the funds so they could be used to help the state's 150,000-plus English language learners.

Collins' order had district administrators from around the state, including those in Payson, making plans to spend the windfall.

However, almost immediately after Collins made the ruling, Republican legislators indicated they would oppose it.

Senate President Ken Bennett (R-Prescott) said, "We'll have to challenge it."

Horne, also a Republican, said he filed the appeal because he wanted schools to have the money in a systematic way where there would be accountability.

Horne also indicated that rather than return the money immediately to school districts, he'd like it returned to the state until the issue of how to spend it is settled.

With the dispute ongoing, Payson School Superintendent Sue Myers is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"We can't spend it if we don't have it," she said. "But (the money) is needed."

Following Collins' ruling, school districts and charters expected to get a one-time payout of about $136 for each English-learner enrolled.

Payson schools have about 120 ELL students, which would have meant an extra $16,320 on top of the $358 per pupil the district now receives.

Myers and fellow administrators had not settled on how best to spend the money, but possibilities included after-school tutoring, summer programs and teacher training.

The $21 million represented fines the state had paid from January to early March for lawmakers' failure to obey Collins' court order to improve ELL instruction with adequate funding.

The fines, which reached $1 million per day, ended March 2 when the Legislature complied with the judge's order by approving a $32 million ELL plan.

The debate of funding English-learner education has its roots in 1992 when a Nogales family filed the Flores vs. Arizona lawsuit that argued the state did not have in place programs that would ensure students overcome language barriers.

After a decade of haggling, a federal judge ruled in 2005 that lawmakers still had not corrected the funding problem.

On March 3, a Republican-backed plan that would add $32 million into ELL programs went into law without Governor Janet Napolitano's signature.

The governor, who has frequently clashed with Horne and the Legislature on the ELL issue, argued the bill did not go far enough in ensuring that children master the English language.

On April 3 in Tucson, Collins will hear arguments on the adequacy of the Legislature's new funding law.

If he rules the GOP plan is not adequate, it'll be back to the drawing board for the Legislature and governor.

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