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Supreme Court divided by Arizona English language case

Miriam Flores, now in her early 20s, is the "Flores" in Horne v Flores. This photo was taken in April 2008.

Miriam Flores, now in her early 20s, is the "Flores" in Horne v Flores. This photo was taken in April 2008.

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court seemed to divide into liberal and conservatives camps Monday during arguments in a case that could limit the power of federal courts to tell states to spend more money to educate students who aren’t proficient in English.

Some of the court’s more liberal justices – David Souter and Stephen Breyer – repeatedly challenged assertions by attorney Kenneth Starr that court oversight of Arizona’s English learners program was no longer needed because the Nogales Unified School District had made progress educating students learning to speak English.

Souter pelted Starr with statistics showing a vast gap in academic test scores between Nogales students learning to speak English and native English-speaking students in Nogales and elsewhere in the state.

“I’m sure progress has been made,” Souter said, “but it doesn’t seem to me that . . .. you could say the objectives are achieved.”

Starr is representing Arizona state legislators and the state superintendent of public instruction, who want to be freed from a lower court order that the state come up with a new program to teach English learners and provide enough money so that it can reasonably be expected to achieve its goal. The state could be forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to comply.

Starr said a “sea change” has taken place in state’s efforts to address the problem in the nine years since voters passed a ballot measure requiring intense English immersion for students learning the language.

A key issue in the case, called Horne v Flores, is the power of federal courts to take over functions of state or local governments when trying to remedy civil rights violations.

Parents of students attending Nogales schools sued the state in 1992, contending programs for English-language learners were deficient and received inadequate funding from the state.

In 2000, a federal judge found that the state had violated the Equal Educational Opportunities Act’s requirements for appropriate instruction for English-language learners. A year later he expanded his ruling statewide and placed the state’s programs for non-English speaking students under court oversight.

Arizona has more than doubled the amount that schools receive per non-English speaking student and taken several other steps prescribed by the No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress in 2002.

Breyer said the state’s increased spending still only amounts to $300 to $400 extra per pupil when estimates suggest it cost from $1,570 to $3,300 extra per student to get the job done.

Justice Ruth Ginsburg said the district court was careful not to tell the state what methods of instruction it should use or how much it should spend.

But Justice Antonin Scalia said he finds “it bizarre that we are sitting here talking about what the whole state has to do on the basis of one district, which concededly is the one that has the most non-native English speakers.”

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