High Court Eases Oversight Of English Program

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Thursday that lower courts need to take another look at whether Arizona schools are providing enough English-language programs. The lower courts had said the schools' programs were not meeting federal requirements.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. We're covering several U.S. Supreme Court rulings today, and now we're going to hear about a decision that makes it easier for state-run schools to get out from under federal court supervision. The ruling could have far-reaching consequences for other state-run institutions such as prisons or mental hospitals. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, this case originated in Arizona.

ARI SHAPIRO: Many of the students in Nogales, Arizona, come from families that only speak Spanish at home. So English language education is a major concern. There's a law saying states must take appropriate action to overcome language barriers in schools. In 2000, a federal judge found that Arizona was not living up to that law, and ever since, a court has been in charge of making sure the state offers adequate English-language education. The question today was whether the state still needs a judge's oversight. Lower courts said the state does. A divided Supreme Court said: Take another look. The justices gave a long list of factors for the trial judge to reconsider. Sri Srinivasan is the attorney representing the students and their families.

Mr. SRI SRINIVASAN (Attorney): We're certainly gratified that we'll have the opportunity in further proceedings to demonstrate that more still needs to be done with respect to the administration of English language learner programs to ensure that these kids have an equal opportunity to participate in the educational system.

SHAPIRO: He will have that opportunity to make his case again in court, but liberals and conservatives agree that today, the Supreme Court made it harder for people like Srinivasan to win these sorts of cases. Education law Professor Gary Orfield runs the UCLA Civil Rights Project.

Professor GARY ORFIELD (UCLA Civil Rights Project): I think it's a very important decision. Even though it looks like it's just sending the case back to the lower court for further consideration, it creates all kinds of procedural and substantive barriers to getting remedies for Latino students.

SHAPIRO: This case fits into a long struggle over how much influence states have over civil rights issues. Orfield points out it's a struggle that three of the justices in the majority today were part of, back when they worked for the Reagan administration. Clarence Thomas, John Roberts and Samuel Alito all worked on civil rights issues.

Prof. ORFIELD: And now they're basically writing those ideas into the U.S. Constitution.

SHAPIRO: If liberals believe this decision makes it harder for federal courts to ensure that justice is done, conservatives see this as a long overdue return to the proper balance. Robert Alt is with the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Mr. ROBERT ALT (Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, the Heritage Foundation): There are serious issues with having judges rather than school boards make fundamental policy determinations.

SHAPIRO: He says today's ruling returns power to local officials.

Mr. ALT: It makes it much easier for the states to challenge the ongoing injunction, and it does so based upon sort of what is the appropriate legal standard.

SHAPIRO: Professor David Levine of Hastings Law School studies court oversight of major institutions like schools.

Professor DAVID LEVINE (Hastings Law School): What this case is doing saying, courts, you're going to have to back off.

SHAPIRO: Is that the case just for schools?

Prof. LEVINE: Oh, no. This is beyond schools. No, no. This is all about how courts should be handling cases involving prisons, involving schools not just in the language area, which is the Nogales case, but all sorts of other sorts of remedies - mental hospitals, all kinds of areas. No, this is a very important decision.

SHAPIRO: The case could impact civil rights litigation around the country. That may be one reason Justice Stephen Breyer took the unusual step of reading his dissent from the bench. In Arizona, Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne was rejoicing today.

Mr. TOM HORNE (Superintendent of Schools, Arizona): This is a major victory, and it's a major victory not just in the case, but for the important principle that we the people rule ourselves through our elected representatives and we're not ruled over by an aristocracy of lifetime federal judges.

SHAPIRO: Even so, today's ruling means he'll have to go back to a federal judge one more time if the Arizona schools want to get out from under court oversight.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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