Federal

Ariz.'s 20-Year-Old ELL Case May End, But Debate Rages On

By Corey Mitchell — July 07, 2015 4 min read
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A federal appeals court ruling may signal the end of a long-standing legal fight over Arizona’s approach to educating its English-learners, but the state remains at the epicenter of the national debate over how to best teach students who enter school speaking another language.

Upholding a decision by a lower court, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month ruled in favor of the state in Flores v. Arizona, a 23-year-old lawsuit challenging Arizona’s requirement that English-learners spend more than half their school day learning English.

No Violation

The plaintiffs argued that the state’s approach to teaching English-learners—which includes a mandated four-hour block of English instruction—violated the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act, a law that requires states and districts to provide students with appropriate aid to overcome language barriers.

The appellate court’s three-judge panel rejected that argument, writing in its opinion that no evidence exists to prove that the state is shortchanging ELLs.

“The record does not contain enough years of ELL performance data after the implementation of the four-hour model to be certain of the model’s effectiveness at teaching English or of its long-term impact on overall academic success,” the judges wrote in their opinion.

Tim Hogan, a lawyer who represents the plaintiffs, has filed a petition for a new hearing. While the appeals court ruling could bring an end to the Flores case, the struggle over Arizona’s mandatory English-only classes will continue to be conducted through other channels.

The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights and the U.S. Department of Justice have been investigating districts since 2010 to address a complaint that the four-hour block of daily English instruction illegally segregates students—one of the central issues addressed in the appellate court ruling.

“The program has all kinds of things wrong with it,” said Mr. Hogan, the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. “The state is saying, ‘If you spend more time learning English every day, you’ll learn faster.’ But the research shows that’s not the case.”

In the years since the case began, English-only programs have fallen out of favor nationally as scholars unearthed further evidence that other instructional models are more effective. State education officials did not comment on the court ruling, but a spokesman for Diane Douglas, Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, said the schools chief “hopes that this issue is now resolved.”

“The superintendent is committed to ensuring that all Arizona students, including ELL students, receive an excellent education,” said spokesman Charles Tack.

Federal Demands

In their latest probe of Arizona’s ELL program, federal officials want the state to use testing to determine when students no longer need four hours a day of English-immersion classes. They also want to require the state to hire a monitor for its English-only program.

But the state wants teachers to decide a student’s progress and when it is time to reduce the amount of instruction.

Both the state and federal education department officials declined to discuss how the court’s ruling could affect the investigation and negotiations.

With an estimated 86,000 ELLs in its public schools, Arizona has been in court, legislative, and ballot-box battles spanning more than 20 years over how to teach English to children who enter school speaking another language.

Mary Carol Combs, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, co-authored a 2013 report on Arizona’s long-running English-learner saga.

“What’s missing in this whole [legal] discourse is the kids. What is the best way to teach them?” Ms. Combs said. “The ruling was not surprising because a court is not particularly interested in those questions.”

Ms. Combs’ report makes recommendations for improving education for ELLs, including: conducting a study to determine appropriate funding; granting districts more instructional flexibility; and disbanding the state’s English Language Learners Task Force.

Guarded Optimism?

The federal oversight and legislative wrangling over the state’s ELL policies give Mr. Hogan hope that opponents of the state’s approach to educating English-learners will find another avenue to overturn it. In December, the state board of education voted to allow schools to cut the mandatory four hours of instruction in half for second-year students who are improving.

And the U.S. Education and Justice departments reached a series of agreements with Arizona education officials over the last five years, brokering deals that ELL advocates celebrated.

As part of a settlement reached in 2012, Arizona agreed to offer targeted reading and writing instruction to tens of thousands of students who were denied services. That resolved a complaint that students had been incorrectly identified as fluent in English or prematurely moved out of language-assistance programs.

The OCR found in 2010 that Arizona’s home-language survey, used by schools to identify students to be tested for ELL services, and the process the state uses to reclassify students as fluent in English, both violated federal law.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as Ariz.'s 20-Year-Old ELL Case May End, But Debate Rages On

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