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Arizona’s English-Learner Debate Unlikely to Wane, Despite Ruling

By Corey Mitchell — June 18, 2015 6 min read
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A federal appeals court ruling handed down this week may signal the end of a long-standing legal fight over Arizona’s approach to educating its English-language 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 ruled on Monday in favor of the state in Flores v. Arizona, a 23-year-old lawsuit challenging Arizona’s requirement that English-language learners spend more than half their school day learning English.

The plaintiffs argued that the state’s approach to teaching English-learners—which includes a mandated four-hour block of English instruction for ELLs—violated the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act, a law that requires states and school 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 parents who are the plaintiffs in the case, has until June 29 to file a petition for rehearing, or he could petition to have the case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. He has yet to decide his next move.

While Monday’s ruling could finally bring an end to the Flores case, the struggle over Arizona’s mandatory English-only classes continues 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 across Arizona since 2010 to address a complaint that alleges 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 have unearthed further evidence that other instructional models are more effective.

State education officials did not offer direct 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. “She will work with staff … to see that the needs of our ELL population are being met.”

Looking Ahead

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 an employee to monitor its English-only immersion 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.

Mr. Tack of the state education department said staff will “continue serving the needs of Arizona’s ELL students as those discussions move forward. We do not have a firm timeline for a resolution.”

Home to an estimated 86,000 English-learners in its public schools, Arizona has been engaged in a series of court, legislative, and ballot box battles spanning more than 20 years over how to teach English to schoolchildren who enter school speaking another language.

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

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

Ms. Comb’s report makes recommendations for improving education for English-learners, including: conducting a cost study to determine the appropriate funding for ELL programs; granting local school districts more instructional flexibility to meet the needs of their students; and disbanding the state’s English Language Learners Task Force, which was responsible for the implementation of the four-hour block model.

“The task of providing efficient and effective English-Language-Learner programs in Arizona remains unsolved,” the report authors wrote. “There are many complexities and challenges facing Arizona’s ELL programs, which historically have been plagued by inadequate funding, uneven oversight, and political wrangling.”

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, Arizona’s state board of education voted to allow schools to cut the mandatory four hours of instruction in half for second-year ELL 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 deal resolved a complaint that students had been incorrectly identified as fluent in English or prematurely moved out of language-assistance programs.

In 2010, the Education Department’s office for civil rights determined that the state’s home language survey that schools gave to parents to identify students to be tested for ELL services and the process the state uses to reclassify ELLs as fluent in English both violated federal law.

“There’s some reason to be optimistic,” Mr. Hogan said. “We need to continue to pursue this.”

After a 2000 court ruling in the Flores case found the state was not meeting its obligation for ELLs, legislators spent years fiddling with the funding formula that gives schools extra money to aid those who need extra help learning English.

That included a 2006 law granting additional funding, but also the requirement for the four-hour immersion classes for non-English-proficient students.

In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision, allowing the state to determine its own approach to educating ELLs.

Now, more than two decades after the original lawsuit was filed, the lead plaintiff in the case, Miriam Flores, still has children in the Nogales school district, which sits near the Arizona-Mexico border. And years later, the struggle over funding and instruction for ELLs continues.

“The number of ELLs in K-12 schools is unlikely to diminish in the long term,” the authors of the 2013 report on Arizona’s English-language learner program wrote. “While Arizona is just one state, the resolution of the Flores case could catalyze important and needed change in ELL education nationwide.”

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