RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The U.S. Supreme Court today hears arguments in a case about education. The question at hand: what must states 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. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: Nogales, Arizona, along the border with Mexico, is heavily Hispanic. Many, if not most of the children who go to school there speak Spanish at home. So unless they learn English at school, they almost inevitably fall behind.
Miriam Flores was one of those youngsters.
Ms. MIRIAM FLORES: It was quite a disadvantage, definitely. For example, even when it comes to math, I mean problem solving, they were all in English. So, you know, in order to understand that kind of thing, yeah, you need to be proficient in your reading in English.
TOTENBERG: The same was true for science and social studies, everything. Miriam and other youngsters like her were drowning - falling farther and farther behind.
Eventually, Miriam's mother and other parents sued the state of Arizona for failing to live up to the federal law that requires all states to take 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 the state of Arizona in violation of that 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's 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 learner's program.
When the Democratic attorney general decided not to appeal, the Republican speaker of the House and the Republican president of the Arizona Senate hired their own lawyers, appealed, and to the surprise of almost everyone, the Supreme Court agreed to look at the case. Their principal ally is State Superintendent of Education, Tom Horne, also a Republican. He sees the case as an example of a judiciary run amok.
Mr. TOM HORNE (State Superintendent of Education): 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 to determine how much they want to tax themselves and 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.
TOTENBERG: Lawyers for the non-English speaking children say that's not true. For years, they say, Arizona failed to come up with any sort of a plan that would comply with federal law.
Lawyer Sri Srinivasan.
Mr. SRI SRINIVASAN (Attorney): What the state needs to do is to come forward with a plan and a commitment of resources that shows a sustainable and durable program that's going to ensure that these students have an equal opportunity to participate in the educational system. And they haven't done that to date.
TOTENBERG: A decision in the case is expected by summer.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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