(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court moved toward ending a 17-year legal battle over Arizona’s programs for students learning to speak English, voting 5-4 that the lower courts failed to recognize the state’s efforts to improve its language programs.
The underlying class action, filed in 1992 by a group of parents and students of Nogales Unified School District, has taken a few turns in U.S. courts.
The group claimed that the English language-learner program in the Nogales system violated the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, which requires states to take “appropriate action to overcome language barriers” in schools.
They accused the state of repeatedly underfunding court-ordered efforts to improve the language programs.
In 2000, a federal judge agreed that the program violated federal law. Although the ruling applied to the Nogales school system, the judge eventually extended his ruling statewide, opening up the state’s programs to federal court oversight.
Over the next eight years, state officials, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, pressed the courts to return control and oversight to state officials, claiming the 2000 order was “no longer equitable.”
The plaintiffs continued to accuse the state of underfunding court-ordered efforts to improve the language programming. When the state failed to do so, the district court in 2005 gave the state 90 days to find a solution. The state failed to meet that deadline, and the federal judge held it in contempt, causing Arizona to rack up more than $20 million in fines.
In March 2006, state legislators responded with a bill designed to establish a permanent funding solution. The bill would increase incremental funding for language-learner programs and create two new funds to cover the additional costs.
But the bill failed to garner the district court approval necessary for its funding provisions to take effect. Lawmakers and Horne urged the district court to purge the contempt order.
The district court, however, found the bill fatally flawed, partially because it the increase in funding was not “rationally related” to the costs of effective English language-learner programming.
The 9th Circuit vacated that decision in an unpublished opinion and remanded.
After another look, the district found the bill still lacking and gave legislators until the end of their session to fix it. Their inaction landed the state another contempt finding.
The federal appeals court affirmed, but acknowledged that Nogales had “made significant strides since 2000.”
The Supreme Court reversed, saying the lower courts focused too narrowly on the funding issue while ignoring other significant improvements Arizona has since made to its English-language programs.
The court agreed with Kenneth Starr, Arizona’s attorney and dean of the Pepperdine School of Law, who argued that improvements should not be measured solely on funding.
“The Equal Educational Opportunities Act is not a funding statute,” Starr had said during oral arguments.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito agreed.
“The court of appeals purported to engage in a ‘changed circumstances’ inquiry, but it asked only whether changed circumstances affected (English language-learner) funding and, more specifically … incremental funding,” Alito wrote.
He said the lower court needed to determine if the ongoing enforcement of the contempt order was justified by an ongoing violation of federal law. “It failed to do so,” Alito wrote.
Horne, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, hailed the ruling as a “major victory for the principle of self-government.”
The dissenting justices, in an opinion written by Justice Breyer, disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that the lower courts had failed to “fairly consider” the changed circumstances.
“The lower courts did ‘fairly consider’ every change in circumstances that the parties called to their attention,” Breyer wrote, emphasizing his point with italics. “The record more than adequately supports this conclusion.”
His opinion was joined by Justices Stevens and Souter, and by Chief Justice Roberts.