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In 1991, over 40 low-wealth school districts represented by the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest (ACLPI) filed a lawsuit claiming that the capital funding portion of the state education finance system violated the uniformity requirements of the state constitution’s education clause. In 1994, the Arizona Supreme Court agreed. The court concluded that the financing scheme prevented some districts from providing the facilities and equipment necessary to give their students the opportunity to meet state standards.
In 1998, the legislature and governor moved responsibility for funding school construction and other capital items away from local districts to the state in order to align the state’s education financing with constitutional requirements. It also phased out local property taxes used to support capital expenditures. The new law created a School Facilities Board to administer the system and included technology, transportation, facilities, and equipment. The Board oversees three separate funds: for new schools, building renewal, and deficiency correction.
Plaintiffs returned to court to challenge the state’s alleged underfunding of the Building Renewal Fund, which is the only source of funds for major repairs and improvements for low-wealth districts. In 2002, the lower court ordered the legislature to restore $90 million to the fund. However, on appeal, the state supreme court held that plaintiffs must show that underfunding resulted in facilities that are below standards.
Horne v. Flores
In 1992, a group of English Language Learner (ELL) students and their parents filed a class action claiming that the state was failing to adequately fund programs for ELL students in Nogales schools. In 2000, the district court found that state funding of ELL programs was “arbitrary and capricious,” in violation of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA) of 1974. Under the EEOA, states are required to ensure that all students, regardless of native language, have the opportunity to participate equally in public education.
The court ordered the government to take steps to increase funding for ELL students, and later extended that order statewide. When the government failed to take action, the district court held the government in contempt and ordered daily fines. Then, in March of 2006, the legislature passed HB 2064, which aimed to increase funding for ELL students statewide. However, in March 2007, the district court ruled that Arizona was still illegally underfunding programs directed towards ELL students. The ruling thus invalidated HB 2064.
On February 22, 2008, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court judgment in favor of plaintiffs. The court also found that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) did not relieve states of the obligation to adhere to the mandates of the EEOA. According to the court, this means that even if Arizona could show that its schools are making “adequate yearly progress” toward improving overall academic achievement, individual students still have the right to bring civil rights claims under the EEOA. Describing the distinction between the two federal laws at issue, the court wrote, “The EEOA’s concerns…lie fundamentally with the current rights of individual students, while NCLB seeks gradually to improve their schools.”
In September 2008, the defendants petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ holding that the state was not meeting its legal obligation to ELL students. In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, determined that the lower courts should have inquired whether changed conditions satisfied EEOA and held that the state-wide injunction was unjustified.Horne v. Flores, 557 U.S. 433 (2009). It sent back the case back for further hearings. After further proceedings in the lower federal courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held in 2015 that current ELL programs in the school district at issue constituted “appropriate action” under the EEOA Flores v. Huppenthal, 789 F.3d 994.
Crane Elementary School v. State
In this lawsuit, plaintiffs brought an action alleging that the state’s education finance system violated the state constitution because it did not provide the opportunity for an adequate education to the state’s “at-risk” students.
The trial court ruled against the parents on summary judgment, holding that the general and uniform clause does not require the State to remedy educational disparities resulting from socio-economic factors. The intermediate court of appeals upheld the lower court and in April 2007, the Arizona Supreme Court denied review of the intermediate Court of Appeals’ ruling.
Espinoza v. Arizona
A class of low-income, racial and ethnic minority students and English Language Learners filed a complaint in 2006 which challenged, on equal protection grounds, the state’s requirement that students must pass the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (“AIMS”) test in order to graduate from an Arizona high school. Plaintiffs claimed that there is no compelling state interest in this high stakes testing requirement. The Plaintiffs also claim that severe inequities in the state’s educational finance system deprive the members of the plaintiff class of an opportunity to receive a quality education that would prepare them to pass the exams.
In September 2008, the Court dismissed Espinoza v. Arizona stating that there was insufficient evidence and that the plaintiffs had presented no causal connection between the pass/fail statistics on the AIMS test and specific districts.
Glendale Elementary School District v. State of Arizona
In May 2017, four Arizona school districts filed a lawsuit alleging that the state has failed to provide sufficient funds for school maintenance in violation of Article 11, Section 1 of the Arizona Constitution. These funds should have been used to maintain buildings, buses, textbooks and technology, according to plaintiffs.
Without such funds, plaintiffs say that schools have been forced to divert funds in a way that harms students’ ability to learn. Plaintiffs point to reports demonstrating that, for years, school districts have lacked science equipment and adequate lighting, and they have suffered from drainage problems that violate state standards. School districts consequently must choose whether to “allow their buildings to fall into disrepair, thereby harming the learning environment, or repair their buildings using funds from their…accounts, thereby taking money away from the classroom,” according to the plaintiffs’ complaint.
In August 2017, the state filed a motion to dismiss. The state urges that the plaintiffs have raised a political question that cannot be decided by the courts. That motion to dismiss is pending.
In a brief order issued in March, 2018 Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Martin rejected a bid by attorneys for both the state and legislative leaders to postpone any action on the lawsuit. The move to put the case on the back burner came after Gov. Ducey announced in January a plan to eventually restore full funding for the “district additional assistance” account to bring it back to the $371 million that it should be according to state law. This account provides money for things like textbooks, computers, school buses and some capital funding. The governor also proposed to put $88 million into the budget for new school construction and add another $35.2 million to a fund available to schools for repairs, bringing that total to $51.8 million.
Mary O’Grady, representing the plaintiffs, countered that the governor’s offer is nothing more than a proposal and there is no guarantee that the Legislature will accede to the governor’s requests. Even if the plan were adopted, she said, the legal issues would not be resolved. For example, rather than funding new schools as they are needed due to student growth, the state has set up a system where it only provides the cash after a school already exceeds capacity, which, she asserted violates the constitutional mandate. Plaintiffs also claim that under the applicable formula, $260 million is needed for repairs, rather than the $51.8 million the governor has called for.