updated 4/20/2009 3:28:17 PM ET 2009-04-20T19:28:17

The Supreme Court on Monday takes up an Arizona case that could limit a federal court's power to tell states to spend more money to educate students who aren't proficient in English.

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Arizona state legislators and the state superintendent of public instruction want to be freed from federal court oversight of the state's programs for English learners. They've been ordered by a lower court judge to spend potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with rulings in a 17-year-old case.

Parents of students attending southern Arizona's Nogales Unified School District sued the state in 1992, contending programs for English-language learners in Nogales were deficient and received inadequate funding from the state.

In 2000, a federal judge found that the state had violated the Equal Educational Opportunities Act's requirements for appropriate instruction for English-language learners. He ordered state legislators to create a plan to provide sufficient funds and placed the state's programs for non-English speaking students under court oversight.

Since then, the two sides have fought over what constitutes compliance with the order. Arizona has more than doubled the amount that schools receive per non-English speaking student and taken several other steps prescribed by the No Child Left Behind Act, a broader education accountability law passed by Congress in 2002.

Key 2008-2009 Supreme Court casesPlaintiffs say that's not enough to comply with federal law and a judge agreed. But the state appealed, and now the high court will answer the question.

Another key issue is the power of federal courts to take over functions of state or local governments when trying to remedy civil rights violations, attorneys involved in the case said.

The case has attracted a flurry of legal briefs from school boards, teachers and civil rights groups in support of the Nogales parents and students. Supporters of the legislators and the superintendent of schools also filed numerous briefs.

The lead plaintiff in the case, now called Horne v Flores, was Miriam Flores. She said her daughter had two years of instruction in her native Spanish, then was put into an English-language class in third grade. The daughter — also named Miriam Flores — began to fall behind. There were complaints she was a behavior problem, talking in class. It turned out she couldn't understand what the teacher was saying and was asking a classmate for help.

Since the case was filed in 1992, a generation of Spanish-speaking students has passed through Nogales and other Arizona public schools, and Mrs. Flores' daughter is now a student at the University of Arizona.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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