- - Thursday, May 2, 2013

What may be one of the longest lawsuits in Arizona history has finally been resolved, to the benefit of Arizona’s schoolchildren and for the financial well-being of the state.

Flores v. Arizona began in 1992, when the Arizona Justice Institute filed a class-action suit against the state on behalf of Miriam Flores and other parents with Spanish-speaking children in the Nogales schools. They alleged that the district was not spending enough on programs to help children learn English. At that time, plaintiffs’ suit was justified.

On Jan. 24, 2000, the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, representing Ms. Flores, won the case for the plaintiffs. Judge Alfredo Marques ruled that the state must spend more on programs for “English learners,” children who start school with limited English.

Education funding is a complex mix of federal, state and local moneys, sometimes targeted for certain groups, sometimes overlapping, sometimes inadequate. School administrators tiptoe carefully through competing boundaries to gather sufficient resources to educate every child in every classroom, a daunting task.


My involvement with Nogales, a working-class city near the Mexican border, began in 2001 when the READ Institute was commissioned to do a cost study, comparing Nogales with other districts in Arizona and elsewhere. We reported on per-pupil funding and results in student achievement over time. Nogales schools were improving measurably, and state funding for English learners was increasing, but very slowly.

In 2000, 63 percent of Arizona voters approved ending the largely ineffective bilingual programs and requiring special English teaching instead. No longer would children that don’t speaking English be obliged to spend years being taught in their native language. English-language help is now provided from the first day of school.

This legal change and the Flores lawsuit wrought a dramatic overhaul in Arizona education policy. How these changes in curriculum, teaching and accountability came about is best described in Arizona educator Johanna Haver’s new book, “English for the Children: Mandated by the People, Skewed by the Politicians and Special Interests.”

Improvement in English-learner achievement in Arizona provides an essential lesson for school districts across the country. English learners number 5 million and constitute the fastest-growing group of students in U.S. public schools. English learners in Nogales and other districts learn English in an average of two years, not the three to six years that these children would have spent in bilingual classrooms. Inclusion in regular classrooms with English speakers has social as well as academic benefits. Once they master English, this group scores as high as, or higher, on state tests of reading, writing and math as all other students in the state — an immense satisfaction for teachers and parents.

One assumes that by documenting higher spending and greater success for students, the case would end. Not so. The impulse to right a wrong morphed into an unwillingness to let go, ignoring the good results. The U.S. Supreme Court took up the case, handing down a ruling in June 2009 favoring the state of Arizona. In his majority opinion, Justice Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. declared the legal standard to be “the quality of education programming and services provided to students, not the amount of money spent on them.” Justice Stephen G. Breyer affirmed “the rights of Spanish-speaking students attending public school near the Mexican border, to learn English in order to live their lives in a country where English is the predominant language.”

The court remanded the case to district court for dismissal, but plaintiffs then put forth new complaints: The schools spend too much time teaching English, more districts should be part of this case, and the new “4-Hour Model” program producing success is too segregative. Never in my three decades in public education have I heard of a state being criticized for doing too much good, demanding that less be done.

Ms. Flores continued to require Arizona to spend time, energy and money to defend itself in court. In 2011, I testified as an expert witness on behalf of the state. A ruling was expected in early 2012, but the fatal shooting of a federal judge attending Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ event in Tucson caused delays.

On March 29, Judge Raner Collins handed down a decision bringing joy to many who suffered through Flores: closure for Arizona educators. The judge denied the attempt to broaden the case; ruled that grouping students by proficiency is not segregation; confirmed that the success of any educational initiative is the level of student achievement, not the amount of money spent; and lastly, ordered that “the clerk shall enter judgment in favor of defendants and close its file in this matter.”

Justice prevails at last, according the people of Arizona relief from a burden of two decades. In my professional opinion, Arizona schools are doing more and better than most other states for students that don’t speak English.

Rosalie Porter, the author of “American Immigrant: My Life in Three Languages” (iUniverse, 2009),is an adviser to schools on immigrant education, connected with the Center for Equal Opportunity/READ Institute.