updated 6/25/2009 1:17:32 PM ET 2009-06-25T17:17:32

The Supreme Court on Thursday handed a partial victory to Arizona officials who are challenging federal court supervision of a program to educate students who aren't proficient in English.

By a 5-4 vote, the court reversed an appeals court ruling in a 17-year-old lawsuit intended to close the gap between students in Nogales, Ariz., who are learning to speak English and native English speakers.

Justice Samuel Alito, in the majority opinion, said a federal judge in Arizona must take another look at the program to see whether Nogales now is "providing equal opportunities" to English language learners.

Alito, joined by his conservative colleagues, was highly critical of rulings by both the judge and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that have kept Nogales and, more recently, the entire state under federal court supervision with regard to teaching nonnative English speakers.

Working toward equality in classroom
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. A year later, he expanded his ruling statewide 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 of funding 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.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, one of the state officials in Phoenix who defended the current system and asked to be freed from federal court oversight, did not immediately return a call for comment.

Spokeswomen for legislative leaders who sided with Horne said they had no comment.

Tim Hogan, an attorney for the class-action plaintiffs, said that with the case going back to lower courts for further review, "we're going to have an expanded opportunity to put the efficacy of the state's current program at issue."

"The message seems to be that we have to prove there's an ongoing violation of federal law. I welcome the opportunity to do that actually, to focus on the program that exists today the four-hour models and whether or not they're working," he added.

A narrow vote
Arizona's current program for English-learning students centers on daily four-hour instruction periods in English.

Alito said the courts need to be more flexible in evaluating the state's actions.

Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent for himself and the other three liberal justices, said the lower courts were thorough and correct.

Thursday's decision "risks denying schoolchildren the English-language instruction necessary to overcome language barriers that impede their equal participation," Breyer said in a dissent that was longer than Alito's majority opinion.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens also dissented.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were in the majority.

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

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