Video commentary with Hoover senior fellows Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson

Monday, July 6, 2009
Hoover senior fellows Eric Hanushek (left) and Paul Peterson

Hoover Institution senior fellows and members of Hoover’s Task Force on K–12 Education Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson discuss the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning English-language learners. Video transcript (5:23)

Recorded on Wednesday, July 1, 2009

>> Hello, I'm Richard Sousa from the Hoover Institution. My Hoover colleagues, Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson, both senior fellows at the Hoover Institution and members of Hoover's Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, recently spoke about the Flores decision. A Supreme Court decision dealing with public school financing. Let's listen in.

>> Paul: Eric, there's a big case out Horne v. Flores which may be the biggest case on school expenditure since the old Rodriguez case back in 1973. And I understand you had a lot to do with the decision there. So what did the court decide?

>> Eric: Well, this was actually a case in federal courts about how to provide education for English language learners. The original Rodriguez case was trying to get the issue of equal spending across districts into the federal courts. In 1973 they, the Supreme Court, decided that that was not a matter of the federal constitution, but as you know this led to 45 of the 50 states having challenges under their own state constitutions about spending.

>> Paul: So now we have a new federal case and this time it's a federal law from 1974 saying you have to have equality for those who don't speak the English language. And that's been interpreted by some state judges, lower court judges, federal judges who say, well you have to spend money up to the level where it will bring up students up to the same level as other students. So you thought those were bad decisions in the lower courts and filed an amicus brief along with others challenging that interpretation.

>> Eric: Absolutely. The law says they have to provide appropriate services so that English language learners can participate in the rest of schooling. And that's a good goal of course but the lower courts only wanted to take into account how much was spent on these students and not whether they were learning anything. The challenge was from the State of Arizona that said we ought to pay attention to the fact that kids are learning more, we've changed the way we do English language instruction and so forth. Now, this has great parallels in our state school finance cases. The state school finance cases have moved away from just equality of spending to cases that are called adequacy cases. And there the whole issue is how much money are you spending on this?

>> Paul: So how did the Supreme Court find out what you guys were up to and what your arguments were? I know you filed an amicus brief but there's a broader discussion as well.

>> Eric: Well, The amicus brief actually was easy to put together because it fell out of a book that Al Lindseth and I have done called Schoolhouses, Courthouses and Statehouses. That book is all about how to both get our schools working in a better direction but also the role of the courts. And in that book we had analyzed some of the big state decisions in New Jersey, Wyoming, Kentucky where the courts had ruled that substantial and big amounts of money should be put into the schools. And after you look at it, you find out that the students were not any better off after they had all this money than before.

>> Paul: So what you are saying is money isn't enough. It's got to be more than money, if you are going to do it and you can't just order more money and think you can are going to solve the problem. Besides that the courts shouldn't be saying that in the first place that's not their job. Is that more or less your argument?

>> Eric: That's pretty much it. There is this constitutional separation where the legislatures are suppose to appropriate money and not the courts. But more importantly the courts haven't done a good job at it. The only place where one of these court decisions was related to better performance was Massachusetts your own home state. And there it wasn't just money but they did substantial other things, better exit exams, fine tuned accountability, and a whole series of other policies. And there if you do other things you get the results.

>> Paul: So what's going to happen to this case now that the Supreme Court has said, we don't think the lower court decision is right. Is this in the dispute?

>> Eric: Well, not at all because Supreme Court decisions on federal matters aren't binding to the individual states. On the other hand the states that have been looking at these cases are themselves getting weary about whether they are doing anything and this well argued decision could well be very influential.

>> Paul: We found the same thing in our analysis of what was going at the state level. The courts had begun to shift and I think we see the U.S. Supreme Court turning with the larger trend raising some questions about whether just spending more money is the only way we can improve our educational system. So anyhow it's great talking with you, Eric.

>> Eric: It's excellent. And you should also mention the Education Next issue, it's just coming out, that has a synopsis on the discussion on both sides in it.