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Arizona Officials Notch Win in Clash Over ELL Services

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 14, 2009 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court handed Arizona officials a victory in a challenge to lower federal court decisions that the state must provide adequate funding for its English-language learners.

In a 5-4 decision on June 25, the court decided in Horne v. Flores that the lower courts didn’t fairly consider “changed circumstances” that had occurred since parents in the Nogales, Ariz., school district had filed the original lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

The nation’s highest court said the case must be sent back to the lower courts for a proper examination of at least four factual or legal changes that have occurred since the 1992 filing of the original lawsuit. Among those changed circumstances: enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

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For more information on the 2008-09 term, read U.S. Supreme Court: Progress and Problems.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the majority opinion. In particular, Justice Alito said, the lower courts must revisit whether the federal district court made a mistake in seeking a statewide solution to the complaint that programs for ELLs in the Nogales school system were underfunded and inadequate.

“The record contains no factual findings or evidence that any school district other than Nogales failed (much less continues to fail) to provide equal educational opportunities to ELL students, he wrote, “Nor have respondents explained how the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 could justify a statewide injunction when the only violation claimed or proven was limited to a single district.”

He said that the district court should vacate the decision as far as it extends beyond the Nogales schools unless it finds that Arizona is violating the EEOA.

Justice Alito was joined in the majority opinion by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony M. Kennedy, and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote the dissenting opinion. “The lower courts did ‘fairly consider’ every change in circumstances that the parties called to their attention.” In dissent, Justice Breyer was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter, and John Paul Stevens.

Timothy M. Hogan, the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, a lawyer for the Nogales parents, said he was disappointed in the ruling. At the same time, he said, “this ruling is going to give us an opportunity to fully explore whether the state’s new program [for ELLs] is working or not.”

New Scrutiny

Mr. Hogan said he believes the current program isn’t working in three of the four areas that the Supreme Court said must be re-examined: a new methodology for teaching ELLs, enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, an increase in the overall funding for ELLs, and changes in programs in Nogales.

The parents who brought the lawsuit had contended in federal court that by not providing adequate services for English-language learners, the Nogales school district, where 1,700 of 6,000 students are ELLs, violated the EEOA. The law requires that districts take “appropriate action” to help students overcome language barriers. In January 2000, U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez ruled that Arizona’s funding for English-learners was “arbitrary and capricious.” He told the state to come up with a plan to provide adequate funds for such students.

The state legislature approved a bill in March 2006 to address the court order, but U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins ruled that the legislation fell short of meeting the requirements of the court. In February 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, upheld Judge Collins’ ruling, which was challenged by some Arizona officials.

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Arizona Officials Notch Win in Clash Over ELL Services

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