Arizona: End Is Near in a Fight on Teaching of English

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed May 20 14:32:45 UTC 2009


May 20, 2009
End Is Near in a Fight on Teaching of English


NOGALES, Ariz. — When Miriam Flores was a student at Coronado
Elementary School, her mother, also named Miriam, was surprised to
learn that she was getting in trouble. “Her teacher said she was
talking in class,” said Mrs. Flores, who speaks limited English. “She
had always been a quiet child, but she said she had to ask other
students what the teacher was saying because she didn’t understand.”
At the time, the state provided only $150 extra for each
non-English-speaking student like Miriam. Few teachers were trained to
help English language learners, and many students in this small,
largely Hispanic border town were floundering. So Mrs. Flores and
other parents sued under a federal civil rights law, charging that
non-English-speaking children were being denied equal educational

Much has changed since then: Miriam is now a 23-year-old college
student. Under a new Arizona law, Coronado Elementary provides four
hours a day of intensive English, in small classes, for students
struggling with the language. These days, the Nogales schools spend 10
times as much on their English language learners. Next month, after 17
years of litigation, the United States Supreme Court will rule on the
Flores case, deciding whether Arizona is complying with federal laws
requiring public schools to teach children to speak English.

The case has been long and tangled, splitting state officials along
party lines. In 2000, a district court ruled that the state’s
financing for English language learners was not “reasonably
calculated” to cover the extra costs of educating them, and ordered
the district to come up with a better plan. Last year, the United
States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court,
ruling that despite improvement, the state was still not in
compliance. “What hasn’t changed since the judgment is the state’s
failure to adequately fund the program,” said Mrs. Flores’s lawyer,
Timothy M. Hogan, of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public
Interest. “Nogales has been doing a better job with its English
language learners recently, but they’re doing it by taking money away
from other programs. They’re spending about $1,570 per E.L.L. student,
but they’re only getting about $385 from the state. Without court
pressure, who knows how long Nogales can continue to make those same
budgeting decision?”

But Tom Horne, Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, said
federal courts had no business directing how the state should spend
education money. “If you want to summarize our position, it’s that
we’re now teaching kids English, we’re taking the ‘appropriate action’
the law requires, and how the district does it isn’t the court’s
business,” Mr. Horne said. With five million school-age children
nationwide who do not speak proficient English — one in 10 of the
nation’s students — the Supreme Court’s ruling could affect spending
on English language learners in many states.

When the federal court’s ruling first came down, Janet Napolitano, a
Democrat who at the time served as Arizona’s attorney general and then
later as governor, did not appeal it. But Mr. Horne and the Republican
speaker of the House and the president of the State Senate said the
appeals court had erred in finding the state out of compliance, and,
backed by conservative legal foundations, won Supreme Court review.
The State Board of Education and the state attorney general opposed
Supreme Court review. During the long court history, new laws and new
legal issues have arisen. For example, Mr. Horne’s side argues that,
because the federal No Child Left Behind law, which was passed since
the Flores case began, also aims to help English language learners,
compliance with that law should count as compliance with the 1974
civil rights legislation under which the Flores case was filed.

But Mr. Hogan and others emphasize the many differences between the
laws — including the fact that the civil rights law gives parents like
Mrs. Flores the right to sue, while No Child Left Behind does not. Mr.
Hogan also says Arizona’s new law does not ensure adequate financing
for English language learners, allowing each student extra financing
for only two years, not always enough for them to succeed in regular
classes. Spanish is the language used in most Nogales homes, and
whether born in Mexico or Arizona, many children like Miriam Flores
arrive in the public schools each year speaking little English.

Because of changes since the litigation began, Nogales’s English
language learners are no longer in bilingual classrooms, but separate
classes, often less than half the size of the regular classes. At
Coronado Elementary, Liliana McPherson helped 12 Spanish-speaking
fourth graders define vocabulary words from a reading on Sputnik and
the space race. Then she asked them to use clues from context to
choose which word would fill in the blank: “Two ___, the United States
and the former Soviet Union, competed to be the first ...”

“Which word goes in that blank?” Ms. McPherson asked. “What are the
United States and the Soviet Union?”

“Spacecraft?” one boy suggested.

At Nogales High School, too, students struggling with basic English
are in small classes. In the Level 1 — pre-emergent English — class,
students learned expressions like “How’s everything?” and “This place
is really something.” They are unlikely to graduate on time, since,
with four hours a day devoted to English, they have no time for the
social studies credits needed to graduate, or electives like music. It
is a painful trade-off, but one that administrators say is necessary.
“I hate that they’re not getting other electives, and that they’re
segregated from other kids for so much of the day, but without the
English, they won’t be successful,” said Claudia Welden, the assistant
principal. “This is still new this year, but I’m encouraged that I’m
hearing the Level 1 and 2 students talking more than they used to, and
I think it’s that four hours.”

While the lawsuit has gone on too long to affect Miriam Flores, her
youngest sister, Isabella, will start in a kindergarten class for
English language learners at Coronado in September. Mrs. Flores hopes
that, because of the changes the litigation prompted, Isabella will
have an easier time with English than did her oldest sister — and
that, ultimately, the Supreme Court decision will provide a smoother
educational path for all Spanish-speaking children. “I want the
schools to be better for all the children, so more of them can go on
to the university like Miriam,” she said.
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