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NYT: Supreme Court Sides With Arizona in Language Case

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with Arizona officials who said the federal government should not be supervising the state’s spending for teaching non-English-speaking students.

Syllabus, Opinion, and Dissent: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/08-289.ZS.html

S Ct. Opinion: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/08pdf/08-289.pdf
 

The 5-to-4 decision reversed a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which said the state was still violating a law that required “appropriate action” to help English language learners overcome language obstacles.

But the case, Horne v. Flores, brought by parents in Nogales 17 years ago, will go on. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, remanded the dispute to a federal judge in Arizona for another look at whether the schools in Nogales, a small town on the Mexican border, now provide equal opportunities to English language learners.

Since 2000, when a federal district judge found that the state’s minimal spending on instruction for English language learners violated the federal Equal Educational Opportunity Act, the state has substantially changed its programs, increasing financing, reducing class sizes and moving from bilingual education to structured English immersion.

The state public instruction superintendent, Tom Horne, asked to be released from court supervision, arguing that Arizona had made such progress with its English language programs that it was no longer warranted. The Ninth Circuit acknowledged that the state had “made significant strides,” but not enough to end the supervision.

Justice Alito — joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — said the lower courts should have been more flexible in evaluating the state’s improvements, especially since federal court decrees in institutional reform cases had the effect of “dictating state or local budget priorities.”

“Rather than applying a flexible standard that seeks to return control to state and local officials as soon as a violation of federal law has been remedied,” Justice Alito wrote, “the Court of Appeals used a heightened standard that paid insufficient attention to federalism concerns.”

Justice Alito said the appellate court also erred by looking narrowly at the schools’ compliance with the original judgment on financing, rather than looking broadly at whether their English language programs’ improvements had cured the problem.

The federal equal-education law, Justice Alito said, focused on “the quality of education programming and services provided to students, not the amount of money spent on them.”

Justice Alito sent the case back to the lower court for further consideration of four changed circumstances that could warrant releasing the state from the earlier judgment: the adoption of new teaching methods, the enactment of the No Child Left Behind law, structural and management reforms in Nogales, and increased overall education financing. He also instructed consideration of whether the case had been wrongly expanded to cover all of Arizona, not just Nogales.

In a lengthy dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the lower courts correctly focused on Arizona’s financing for English language learners because inadequate financing was the basis of Nogales’s violation of federal law.

The dissent, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens, appended a chart showing the high failure rates of Nogales’s English language learners on state tests and emphasized the importance of ensuring their educational access.

The majority ruling “risks denying schoolchildren the English language instruction necessary to overcome language barriers that impede their equal participation,” Justice Breyer wrote.

Given that 47 million Americans do not speak English at home, he said, “I fear that the court’s decision will increase the difficulty of overcoming the barriers that threaten to divide us.”

Justice Breyer criticized the majority opinion’s outlined framework for review. “Does the court mean to say, for example, that courts must, on their own, go beyond a party’s own demands and relitigate an underlying legal violation whenever that party asks for modification of an injunction?” he wrote.

The dissent also takes issue with the majority’s statements on federalism.

“The court may mean its opinion to express an attitude, cautioning judges to take care when the enforcement of federal statutes will impose significant financial burdens upon states,” Justice Breyer wrote. “An attitude, however, is not a rule of law.”

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