English and equality in the classroom and the courts

By Michelle Chen Apr 21, 2009

Miriam Flores, 22, has bad memories of third grade. That was when she stopped being able to understand her teacher. As her family recounts the story, her grades dropped suddenly after her school in Nogales, Arizona, a town near the US-Mexico border, had moved her from a Spanish-based bilingual program to an English-only setting. Flores eventually overcame the language barrier and is now majoring in Mexican-American studies at the University of Tuczon in Arizona. But her case has become a much bigger test for the entire public education system: Horne v. Flores was argued before the US Supreme Court on Monday, in a case that could change the way schools teach the millions of children nationwide facing Flores’s predicament today. The issue is not whether the government should assist English language learners, but how. Arizona’s English language learner (ELL) programs undergone major changes in recent years: a state ballot measure in 2000 essentially scrapped bilingual education in favor of an “immersion” approach (see our previous post on a similar initiative in Boston). Then No Child Left Behind piled on another set of mandates, which critics say have exacerbated barriers for ELL students. A 2000 district court decision compelled Arizona to overhaul its ELL programs and provide adequate funding and monitoring. The state now argues it has improved its programs and that court mandates are no longer needed. Though much of the dispute turns on school funding, another question is how communities should hold schools accountable for providing extra help for students who struggle with English. The court may redefine state obligations under the standards of No Child Left Behind as well as the Equal Educational Opportunities Act—an earlier civil rights law that, unlike NCLB, allows individuals to sue over government noncompliance. Arizona education officials say federal oversight has been burdensome and generally ineffective for addressing students’ changing language needs. But advocates for immigrant families say the case is about the deep link between educational quality and civil rights. In its appeal, lawyers for the state contended, “Contrary to the assumptions indulged by the courts below, increased program funding is not necessarily the best path toward improving educational opportunities.” No, money alone won’t fix anything, but maybe that’s all the more reason for comprehensive federal monitoring. By the time the court makes its decision, nearly a generation of school children will have passed through a system that hasn’t figured out how to serve English language learners equitably. Some, like Miriam Flores, will turn out okay. But the schools that are tasked with giving all students the opportunities they deserve must still wrestle with the reality that an unequal education is a poor education. Image: Pearl Harbor Elementary School, Honolulu, HI