Horne v. Flores: Lessons in equality

By Michelle Chen Jun 26, 2009

After sidestepping the issue of equality in voting rights earlier this week, the Supreme Court today issued a ruling that could loosen the legal framework for ensuring equality in education. The case, Horne v. Flores, was brought by parents in Arizona in the 1990s, who charged that the state had violated the Equal Educational Opportunities Act by neglecting English language learner students (ELLs). Subsequent court rulings mandated greater funding for ELL programs. State education officials have protested that the mandates are too rigid and not sensitive to changing programs and policies. The Court decided the case should be reconsidered in light of policy and program changes, including the state’s actions under the No Child Left Behind Act. In an amicus brief, several school districts joined civil rights groups from all over the country in criticizing the funding system for students with limited English proficiency.

School districts are already stretched to their limits in terms of finances, personnel and morale. They will continue to struggle to provide general education and ELL programs in compliance with the EEOA in the absence of minimally adequate assistance and resources from the State.

Dissenting, Justice Breyer wrote:

In a Nation where nearly 47 million people (18% of the population) speak a language other than English at home… it is important to ensure that those children, without losing the cultural heritage embodied in the language of their birth, nonetheless receive the English language tools they need to participate in a society where that second language “serves as the fundamental medium of social interaction” and democratic participation…. In that way linguistic diversity can complement and support, rather than undermine, our democratic institutions. … I fear that the Court’s decision will increase the difficulty of overcoming barriers that threaten to divide us.

The case will get a new reading through the lens of the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act. Despite the law’s purported goal of closing the “achievement gap,” the Institute for Language and Education Policy argues that “Decisions affecting ELLs are often made on the basis of political expediency, not sound research,” and that “The vast majority of academic assessments now provided to ELLs are inappropriate for second-language learners.” The court’s decision is not the last word in the case. A lawyer representing the parents told EdWeek that sending the case to a lower court would be a setback, but would also “give us an opportunity to fully explore whether the state’s new program [for ELLs] is working or not.” While officials claim that changes in the school system have rendered earlier funding mandates obsolete, activists might uncover fresh evidence of a broken system, and maybe, for the next generation of Nogales kids, push forward an overhaul. Image: David Reece Elementary School, Sacramento, CA (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)