State Denies More Ell Funding

Teachers struggle to meet government mandates without financial backing

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While a federal judge and the Arizona Legislature haggle over how to fairly fund English Language Learner (ELL) programs, school districts around Arizona, including Payson, scramble to provide the mandated English-learner services.

"It's a challenge," said Bill Lawson PUSD Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Special Program.

"We have 221 ELL students identified (in the district) and while that is not a huge part of the student body, we want to do what is best for them."

The real problem in funding occurs when the amount the district receives from the state -- $360 per pupil -- doesn't cover the expenses of the English Language Learner program.

"The money has to come from somewhere else (in the budget)," Lawson said.

That source is usually the district's Maintenance and Operation (M&O) budget.

Taking money from that fund to supplement ELL could mean other programs get shortchanged.

Last school year, PUSD employed three full-time ELL teachers, but their salaries came from the M&O budget, rather than from state ELL funding.

Former PUSD ELL coordinator Louis Crabtree said increased state funding to Payson schools would be a much welcome relief, but the district is doing the best it can with the money allocated.

"(ELL) use to be catch-as-catch-can, but it's come light years," he said.

In March 2006, the Legislature passed HB 2064, which would have increased per-pupil fund for ELL to about $420 per student annually.

However, U.S. District Judge Raner Collins of Tucson ruled that amount didn't satisfy a seven-year-old court order to provide adequate ELL funding to school districts.

A study Collins refers to shows a minimum of $700 per student is needed.

Collins ordered the Legislature to come up with a funding solution before the end of the session, or face sanctions.

But lawmakers ignored his directive and adjourned last week without approving more funding for ELL programs.

Before adjourning, however, the Legislature requested a stay of the judge's order, pending their appeal to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On June 25, Collins denied the stay. Collins' decision leaves school district officials in a limbo, waiting to see how the judge will respond to the Legislature's refusal to increase ELL funding.

If he does impose sanctions, as promised, the action would be nothing new.

Last year, Collins imposed $21 million in fines against the state, but when the Legislature came up with a new ELL per-pupil funding method, the fines were canceled.

The ELL funding problem has its roots in 2000, when former U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez ruled that the state underfunds ELL programs.

State officials estimate more than 133,000 Arizona students are currently learning English in state public schools.

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