(CN) - Arguments over a class action filed 17 years ago were heard Monday in the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case in which the mother of a Spanish-speaking child sued the Nogales school system in Arizona for its poor language program, and the state then underfunded court-ordered efforts to improve the language teaching.
There's little question that the Nogales school district, located along the Mexican border, was having trouble educating its non-English speakers. "22.4 percent of English learners are scoring at or above proficient," noted Justice Stephen Breyer.
The central argument by plaintiff lawyer Sri Srinivasan, who represented mother Miriam Flores, is that the schools are violating the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, which requires that schools "make a good faith effort" to help students overcome language barriers.
Srinivasan argued that the state of Arizona has not increased funding to accommodate its plan for improving the scores of students who don't speak English.
Justice Antonin Scalia remarked that a good faith effort under the English program is a vague requirement, and that it would be hard to hold against the district.
"That's how the state has said from the outset that it would solve the problem," replied Srinivasan.
Kenneth Starr, Dean of Pepperdine School of Law, defended Arizona. He argued that improvements should not be measured just on funding, but also on management.
"The Equal Educational Opportunities Act is not a funding statute," said Starr.
The school district underwent "substantial changes," he said, between 2000 and 2007. New language immersion strategies, increased oversight, and Arizona's adoption of the federal No Child Left Behind Act all added to an improved education system.
Starr argued that if the state is in compliance with the strict No Child Left Behind Act, which requires an improvement in test scores, then it must be in compliance with the more general education act.
Srinivasan replied that compliance with one does not infer compliance with the other.
Justice Scalia remarked that there is no substantive content in the No Child Left Behind Act because all it requires is testing.
Apart from the school district changing its structure, Starr said increases in funding would become a statewide problem.
It would violate the state's uniformity clause, he said, and all schools in Arizona would need to get more funding to maintain equality. "Funding cannot vary between districts," said Starr.
"I'll let Arizona judges deal with that," replied Scalia.
Despite Scalia's rejoinder, the argument at the hearing centered on how funding relates to the education plan.
Justice David Souter noted that currently, $340 of funding goes towards each student, but it would take roughly $1500 per student to comply with the education plan the district had come up for itself.
"You came up with plan A and funding B. If you choose plan A, you have to have funding A," said Souter.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Breyer agreed.
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