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Supreme Court Holds Funding is Not the Only Way to Demonstrate Appropriate ELL Services

K-12 Education Publications

In its recent decision, Horne v. Flores, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s ruling that an Arizona school district and the State did not take “appropriate action” to address the needs of its English Language-Learner (ELL) students under the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (“EEOA”). Rather, the Court found multiple potential bases for the State and School District to demonstrate that they were now taking appropriate action to address the needs of ELL students.

This case arose out of a class action lawsuit filed by various students and their parents in an Arizona school district alleging that the State and School District were violating the EEOA by providing inadequate ELL instruction. The District Court concluded that the defendants violated the EEOA through its “arbitrary” funding model, and eventually ordered the state to “appropriately and constitutionally fund the state’s ELL” programs. Subsequently, the state legislature passed a bill designed to implement a permanent funding solution to address these issues. After adoption of the new law, the State and School District returned to court to seek the court’s approval of the new legislation and dismissal of its earlier order.

The District Court denied the defendants’ motion, finding that the bill did not appropriately fund the State’s ELL programs, nor had a sufficient “change in circumstance” occurred to warrant dismissal of the court’s order. The Court of Appeals affirmed this decision, holding that relief would only be appropriate if the State had shown that its funding model or the funding requirements for ELL programs had changed.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed this ruling, holding that the lower courts incorrectly placed a heightened standard on the State to demonstrate that a sufficient change in circumstance had occurred to warrant dismissal of the order. In particular, the Court held that the lower courts incorrectly focused on the State’s funding scheme, rather than looking at other factors that may demonstrate that the defendants were now taking appropriate action to address the needs of its ELL students.

Stating that “funding is merely one tool that may be employed to achieve” compliance under the EEOA, the Court identified four additional “important factual and legal changes” that have occurred since the District Court’s original order that may warrant the granting of relief:

  1. the State’s statewide implementation of a “structured English immersion” approach, which the Court noted as being considered “significantly more effective than bilingual education;”
  2. Congress’s enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, which grants states flexibility in adopting ELL programs, and has prompted the State to institute significant structural and programming changes and to comply with assessment and reporting requirements;
  3. the School District’s structural and management reforms, including reduced class sizes, improved student/teacher ratios and teacher quality; and
  4. an overall increase in education funding available to the School District.

Importantly, by singling out these factors as potential sufficient changes, the Court provides significant guidance to other school districts and states throughout the country seeking to demonstrate their compliance with similar court orders.