Judge upholds immersion approach to teaching English

Gary Grado//April 1, 2013

Judge upholds immersion approach to teaching English

Gary Grado//April 1, 2013

A 20-year legal odyssey took a step closer to completion Friday when a federal judge ruled the state’s way of teaching English to kids who don’t know the language is “a valid educational theory.”

The 88,620 children in the English Language Learner program spend four hours a day devoted strictly to the language, a method that plaintiffs’ attorney Tim Hogan of the Center for Law in the Public Interest argued in court deprives them of adequate learning in other subjects.

Hogan said he hasn’t decided whether to appeal U.S. District Judge Judge Raner Collins’ ruling.

And while Collins found that Hogan failed to prove any violation of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, he slipped in his opinion of Arizona’s policy at the end of his written order, which is in line with Hogan’s.

“It appears that the state has made a choice in how it wants to spend funds on teaching students the English language,” Collins wrote. “It may turn out to be penny wise and pound foolish, as at the end of the day, speaking English, and not having other educational gains in science, math, etc. will still leave some children behind.”

But Collins added that the class-action lawsuit, Flores v. Arizona, filed in 1992, is no longer the way to pursue the state’s educational issues.

Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, who was in the Legislature in the time the legal battle was waged and the state made changes to its policies on English education, said the ruling made sense.

“This ruling validates that we’ve made great improvements in English language instruction since 1992,” he said.  “We believe our current approach represents the best in education research and this order seems to validate this.”

The suit alleged the state was providing inadequate English Language Learner, or ELL, instruction in the Nogales Unified School District in violation of federal law. Collins ruled in 2000 in the plaintiffs’ favor, finding that the state’s funding for ELL students was arbitrary and not related to the actual cost of instruction. He extended his ruling to apply statewide.

The state sought to get out of Collins’ judgment, but he refused, and the case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June 2009 struck down a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the state improperly funded the English education classes.

The case was returned to Collins and he held hearings in late 2010 and early 2011 on the issue of the four-hour model, which stemmed from Proposition 203 in 2000.

The ballot measure changed the way Arizona taught English to non-English speaking children from bilingual education to Structured English Immersion.

Each school district came up with its own program until 2006, when the Legislature passed a law creating the ELL Task Force, which essentially developed the state-wide program. Gov. Jan Brewer signed HB2425 on Thursday, a day before Collins’ ruling, eliminating the task force and turning over its duties and authority to the Board of Education.

The goal is to get a child proficient in a year, but Hogan said from the districts he has reviewed, the average time to proficiency is 3 years.

“Courts are deferential to the state when it comes to determining educational practices,” Hogan said. “This is a little too deferential.”