Arizona ELL Case to Go to U.S. Supreme Court

Last Updated: March 12, 2009

This article appeared in the February 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the long-running Flores lawsuit on appeal from legislative leaders in Arizona and the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne. The original class action lawsuit, brought in 1992 claimed that the state was violating the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA) by failing to provide sufficient funding for Arizona’s programs for English Language Learners (ELL).
Plaintiffs won decisions in 2000 and in 2007, and were recently upheld on appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal judge in the case ordered increased funding and high fines for the state for noncompliance.
Plaintiff lawyers have expressed concern that the Court’s decision to take the case could mean it plans to modify or reverse the Circuit Court’s decision, which could weaken the EEOA. Their brief to the Supreme Court states that the current judge with jurisdiction over the case has done a good job of pushing the state legislature into compliance. Oral arguments are scheduled for April. 
In the meantime, Superintendent Horne has recommended cutting $32 million of the $40 million currently budgeted for ELL students, claiming that his approach of immersing ELL students in language classes four hours per day dramatically decreases the time it takes them to learn English. Critics point out that funding is already too low to meet standards and that this method keeps older ELL students from earning high school credits in other subjects and pushes them to drop out.
Arizona is one of three states (the others are Florida and New York) that require all prospective teachers to show they are competent to teach ELL students. Only 4.9% of Arizona's ELL students (grades 4 and 8 averaged) tested proficient in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2007, compared with 9.6% nationwide. And 3.3% of Arizona's ELL students tested proficient in reading on the NAEP that same year, compared with 5.6% nationwide. Arizona is one of 32 states with a funding formula that includes weights or adjustments for ELL students. But it is also one of 24 states that permit ELL funding money to be used for any other educational purpose. Ten states provide no additional funds for ELL students. In 2006-07, Arizona reclassified 10.7% of its ELL students as fluent in English, compared with the national average of 12.9%.
Read more:
Local coverage of the Supreme Court docket decision:
Coverage of Horne’s announcement, with editorial coverage:
Read more from the February 2009 Rural Policy Matters.