In English Learning Case, Families Will Lose Either Way

The Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today in a case that will affect how and at what cost English is taught to non-native speakers in U.S. public schools. On one side are Hispanic parents from southern Arizona who sued their school district for failing to properly teach their children English, and on the other are district and state officials who want the courts to butt out and let them teach students in whatever way, and at whatever cost, they choose. I understand what these parents are going through – I grew up in an English-speaking family in the French-speaking province of Quebec – but it really doesn’t matter who “wins” this case: the families will lose either way.

Even if the parents “win,” and the Court orders their public school district to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on English instruction, it won’t do any good. A 1985 federal court order compelled the state of Missouri to spend an additional $2 billion over 12 years to desegregate Kansas City schools and improve the achievement of African American students. Neither goal was achieved, and even the presiding judge eventually admitted his order was a failure. Extra spending and court pressure do not improve public school performance, because public schools don’t have to show improvement to get the money and because courts can’t dismiss ineffective administrators or teachers.

The real solution is to empower families to _leave_ the schools that are failing them and move their children to more effective ones. Fortunately, Arizona has an education tax credit program that makes scholarships available to defray private school tuition. Whatever the court’s verdict, these parents should be banding together to create a local scholarship fund that can accept tax-credited donations so their children can attend the private schools of their choice. They can then pick whichever schools demonstrate the most success at teaching English instead of spending their time in court.