Justices get AZ bilingual case today
Capitol Media Services
April 20, 2009

 

US Supreme Court to hear arguments on whether state meets language orders

By Howard Fischer

Tucson, Arizona | Published:http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/289407

 

PHOENIX On paper, the issue the U.S. Supreme Court will take up today is simple: Should Arizona lawmakers be forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with a judge's ruling that they do more to ensure students learn English.

But what the court rules in the case that has been dragging through the legal system for the last 17 years is giving a host of outside groups a forum to push their own agendas. These range from a debate on the merit of settling lawsuits with consent decrees to an attack on bilingual education as dividing the nation.

If nothing else, the decision due this summer could redefine states' rights versus federal authority.

Today's hearing follows rulings by a trial judge and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Arizona is not complying with federal laws requiring states to "take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs."

Republican lawmakers and the state's schools superintendent, Tom Horne, contend the state is in compliance. They also argue the situation has changed since the original 2000 ruling, making further judicial oversight unnecessary and illegal.

But Tim Hogan, representing the parents who originally sued, said the record shows otherwise.

And Hogan wants the nation's high court to note state officials actually signed a consent decree in 2000 agreeing to bring Arizona's teaching into compliance with the law. He said that prevents lawmakers from trying to get the Supreme Court to overrule indirectly what they never challenged directly.

It all started with a complaint in 1992 by several parents that their children, enrolled in Nogales, Ariz., public schools, were not getting the education they needed. They charged the state was not complying with the "appropriate action" requirement of the law.

The trial judge agreed, finding there were too many students in classrooms, not enough qualified teachers, inadequate tutoring programs and insufficient teaching materials.

Lawmakers subsequently enacted several changes affecting schools throughout the state, all of which, to date, judges have found lacking.

The most recent effort, a 2006 change in law, found some favor with U.S. District Judge Raner Collins in Tucson as a possible solution. But he concluded and appellate judges agreed two provisions were illegal: limiting extra help for each student to no more than two years and requiring schools to first use other federal funds before getting additional state funds.

Horne and lawmakers decided to seek Supreme Court review, not only over the two provisions, but the whole question of whether federal courts should not interfere.

One threshold question is whether the problems still exist and where.

When the complaint was first filed, Miriam Flores, the child of one of the Nogales parents, was in grade school; she now is a student at the University of Arizona.

Attorneys for Horne and the Legislature say Nogales students are doing better because of prior changes in the law, making further court intervention unnecessary. Those changes have put extra funding for students labeled "English-language learners" at about $360 above basic state aid, compared with $150 when the lawsuit was filed.

Hogan said the record in Nogales shows otherwise. And he said there is evidence it takes an extra $1,600 for each English learner to do the job right.

With about 150,000 English learners in Arizona schools close to one out of every eight students that carries a price tag of close to a quarter-billion dollars.

He also said Collins recognized the problem is not confined to a single community. Hogan said courts need to stay involved in the case until all students statewide have the opportunity to learn guaranteed in federal law.

Attorneys for the Tucson, Mesa, Sunnyside, Tempe Elementary and Phoenix Union school districts argued that Collins' orders are not micromanagement of education policy. They said he simply told lawmakers when their prior efforts fell short and gave them deadlines to come back with new plans.

The Obama administration is on Hogan's side, with the acting solicitor general saying the evidence shows Arizona has not yet complied with federal law.