Habla Di, Habla Da, Strife Goes On

Federal ruling in bilingual-education lawsuit goes unheeded by state officials

When Tucson attorney William Morris died of a heart attack on March 11, he left behind a lawsuit that promises to be as divisive as the school finance rulings of the 1990s. In fact, perhaps more so, because it not only involves money for educating poor children, but also bilingual education, a perpetual sore spot in this borderline state.

The case of Flores v. State of Arizona has been fighting its way through federal court since 1992. It is a class-action suit filed in Nogales on behalf of Spanish-speaking students whose civil rights were being violated, or so the suit argues, because they were denied equal education under the law.

On January 24, U.S. District Court Judge Alfredo Marquez agreed, ruling that where "limited English proficient" students are concerned, the state is pinching pesos.

"The judge did find that we are in violation of civil rights legislation," says state Senator Joe Eddie Lopez, who has long championed Latino education issues, "and by rights we should have found a way of funding that program or at least taking initial positive steps to resolve that issue."

But while school districts are pleading poverty -- no money to pay the teachers they have now, let alone to hire new ones who are language-certified -- the Legislature is singing "The Sounds of Silence."

And while that stalling tactic worked well for several years against the state Supreme Court ruling that ordered the Legislature to rethink the way it paid for new schools, it may not work here. Federal judges have lots more power than state judges.

Tim Hogan of the Phoenix-based Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest has been Morris' co-counsel in the Flores case and will pick up where Morris left off. He's already sent a letter to the Legislature promising further action.

"Once the Legislature adjourns," he says, "and assuming they've done nothing, which I think is a pretty valid assumption, we'll be going back to federal court in Tucson for a federal order telling them what they've got to do."

The Flores case involves the Equal Education Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the U.S. Supreme Court's Lau decision, which mandated bilingual education. Essentially, the suit argued that the state did not supply enough money -- especially in poor school districts, where the majority of limited English proficient students are -- to pay for competent teachers or learning materials. The lawsuit also contended that the state did not sufficiently monitor school districts to make sure that their LEP programs were effective. The court agreed. Another portion of the suit alleged that the AIMS test, which all students must pass in order to graduate from high school, discriminated against LEP students; on that count Judge Marquez ruled against the plaintiffs, saying that there was not yet sufficient evidence to tell.

But the court did not say what the state had to do about it. At the time the judge heard arguments, a legislative committee was looking into the per-pupil cost of bilingual education and English As a Second Language instruction. That committee fizzled out, and so did the solitary attempt to propose legislation to satisfy the court.

"I had a piece of legislation that mirrored the consent agreement coming out of the lawsuit," says Senator Lopez. But it never got out of the Senate education committee.

"I guess they just don't want to deal with it at all this year," Lopez says.

Now, state Department of Education officials say they plan to meet with Nogales school district administrators, primarily about a seven-year-old federal Office of Civil Rights report that required the district to come into compliance with civil rights law.

Jennifer Mabrey, who handles finance matters for the state education department, says she has never seen it.

Tim Hogan dismisses the state's sudden interest in Nogales as just another stalling tactic -- if not outright incompetence. He says the state should be focusing on the court ruling, not a years-old federal agency report.

Those sentiments are echoed by Anne Doan, the head of bilingual education programs for the Nogales school district.

"It has nothing to do with our OCR [report]," she says. "It has to do with what they are going to do to fund our program."

If the Legislature and the Department of Education do nothing, the judge can make some costly decisions for them, which is sure to set off fireworks in an era when bilingual education is under attack not just from the Anglo establishment but within the Latino community as well -- even in Nogales.

Bill Morris' death may slow the process somewhat. Until now, Hogan has handled those aspects of the Flores case that related to his earlier suit that changed school finance; now he must get up to speed on the rest of the case. He and Doan have to live up to a deathbed promise.

When Morris was first hospitalized, Doan called him on the phone to cheer him up.

"He said, 'I just want you and Tim not to let this go,'" Doan recalls, tearfully. "Those were his last words to me."

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: michael.kiefer@newtimes.com

 
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