The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Monday in a case testing what states must do to comply with the federal law requiring public schools to teach children to speak English. Butting heads in the case are politicians, federal laws, the power of the federal courts to enforce judicial orders, and the power of state legislatures to decide how to spend taxpayer money.
Nogales, Ariz., along the border with Mexico, is heavily Hispanic. Many, if not most, of the children who go to school there speak Spanish at home. Unless they learn English at school, they almost inevitably fall behind.
Miriam Flores was one of those youngsters.
"It was quite a disadvantage, definitely," Flores says. "For example, even when it comes to math, I mean problem solving, they were all in English. So in order to understand, you need to be proficient in your reading in English."
The same was true for science, social studies and the other subjects. Flores and other youngsters like her were drowning — falling further and further behind. So Flores' mother and other parents sued the state of Arizona for failing to live up to the federal law that requires all states to take the steps needed to overcome language barriers so that non-English language speaking students can become English-proficient and fully competitive. The law, first enacted in 1974, provides a right to sue to enforce this mandate.
In 2000, a federal judge declared that the state of Arizona was in violation of the federal law. The judge said the state had failed to put in place trained teachers and programs reasonably calculated to teach English. He found that some teacher aides did not themselves speak adequate English, and that the state was spending less than $150 to bring each child up to speed.
Since then, the state says it has built more schools, hired more teachers, shrunk the size of classes and doubled the amount spent per pupil on English language learning.
But the state and the courts have remained at loggerheads. Most recently, a federal appeals court ruled that the state's overall increase in general education spending and management improvements in Nogales did not excuse the state from its obligation to develop and fund an appropriate English language learners program. When the state's Democratic attorney general decided not to appeal, the Republican speaker of the House and the Republican president of the Senate hired their own lawyers, appealed, and to the surprise of almost everyone, the Supreme Court agreed to take a look at the case. Their principal ally is Tom Horne, the state's superintendent of education, also a Republican. He sees the case as an example of a judiciary run amok.
"That's why it's so vital that we win this case and that the U.S. Supreme Court rule that it's up to the people of Arizona, the taxpayers, to determine how much they want to spend, and it's not a matter to be dictated to by lifetime federal judges who are not responsible to anyone.
Lawyers for the non-English speaking children say that's a caricature. For years, they say, Arizona failed to come up with any sort of a plan that would comply with federal law.
"What the state needs to do is to come forward with a plan and a commitment of resources that shows a sustainable, durable program that's going to ensure that these students have an equal opportunity to participate in the educational system," says lawyer Sri Srinivasan. "And they haven't done that to date."