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U.S. Backs Rulings Requiring More English-Language Learner Aid in Arizona

The Obama administration has filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court that backs efforts to bring about greater funding for English-language learners in Arizona public schools.

The administration filed the friend-of-the-court brief in Horne v. Flores (Case No. 08-289) on the side of the state of Arizona and parents in the community of Nogales in a long-running case over how much funding the state must provide for English learners under a federal civl rights law.

In an unusally divisive split within a state government, the state and the Arizona state board of education are lined up on one side, along with the Nogales parents, in favor of providing more funding for ELL programs. On the other side are state legislative leaders and the state schools superintendent, who contend that the state legislature has provided enough funding to satisfy the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and that should be enough to meet the standards of the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974. (Read this Education Week story for background.)

The 1974 law requires each state to take "appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in instructional programs." But the law doesn't define "appropriate action."

The Obama administration now steps into the case on the side of the state and the parents. A brief signed by lawyers from the U.S. solicitor general's office and the U.S. Department of Education says that a federal district court was within its powers in requiring state lawmakers to develop and appropriately fund a statewide program for ELL education.

"The court did not order the State to spend any particular amount of money on ELL education; it required only that ELL funding 'shall bear a rational relationship to the actual funding needed to implement language acquisition
programs in Arizona’s schools,'” says the brief, which was filed on March 25.

The federal brief also rejects arguments from the state legislative leaders and the state superintendent that meeting NCLB's standards for English-language learners should be sufficient to meet the "appropriate action" standard of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act.

"A state’s receipt of federal funding under Title III of NCLB does not in itself demonstrate that the state is taking appropriate action to overcome language barriers under the EEOA," the U.S. brief says. "Nothing in Title III indicates an intent to displace entirely the EEOA, and there is no warrant for this court to assume Congress had such an intent."

Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who was confirmed by the Senate earlier this month, is recused from the case, the brief says. That is most likely because Kagan was until recently the dean of Harvard Law School, and the Nogales parents are represented by the Harvard Supreme Court and Appellate Clinic.

The case is scheduled for oral argument on April 20.

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