A lawyer for the Lancaster City School District told a federal appeals court Monday that a lower court erred last summer when it paved the way for five refugee children with limited English proficiency to attend the city's public high school instead of the for-profit school to which they were assigned.

The case has national significance because allegations that older refugee children have been systematically denied enrollment in public schools, or funneled to inferior alternative programs, have been leveled in more than 20 school districts across the country.

In Lancaster, the school district assigned the five - all 17 or older, and born in places such as Somalia and Sudan - to Phoenix Academy, an accelerated-credit-recovery school designed for students who are academically behind.

The students contend that Phoenix doesn't meet their language learning needs.

By law, school districts in Pennsylvania must educate students until age 21 or their graduation from high school.

Issa v. School District of Lancaster, argued before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, pits a district's final say over student placement against a judge's interpretation of the district's obligation to treat students equally under the federal Equal Education Opportunity Act.

In August, U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith ruled in favor of the students. The district immediately appealed.

Attorney Thomas Specht, arguing for the district, had barely begun his allotted 15 minutes Monday when Judges Cheryl Ann Krause, D. Michael Fisher, and Michael J. Melloy began to pepper him with questions.

"You seem to be asking these students to make an either/or choice," said Melloy, "to age out at 21 with a diploma" but not speaking English, "or age out at 21 hoping to speak English. Which is more important?"

"The record shows they are getting a good education at Phoenix," Specht replied.

Arguing for the plaintiffs, attorney Withold "Vic" Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania took issue with that assessment.

"The students [at Phoenix] testified that they didn't understand what was going on," he said. They all needed interpreters in court, he said.

The panel gave no indication when it might issue a ruling.