Examining the Impact of Lau v. Nichols

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 01, 2007 2 min read
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As a journalist specializing in the education of children from immigrant families, I’ve come to appreciate any chances I have to learn about the history of education for these children because that history influences what happens today. Thus I paid close attention to a presentation about the long-term impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1974 ruling in Lau v. Nichols, at the annual summit on ELLs sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education this week.

The highest court in the land ruled in that civil rights court case that San Francisco schools had to provide Chinese children with a bridge to the curriculum that took their inability to speak and understand English into consideration. The case greatly expanded the rights of all children with limited English skills to receive special help to learn English. The ruling doesn’t specify what kind of approach schools should use to help such students.

The panelists were Patricia Gandara, a professor of education and the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles; Ed Steinman, a professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law; and Peter Zamora, the regional counsel for the Washington office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. They said the court case was important in furthering the country’s recognition of the civil rights of English-language learners, but they emphasized that it’s up to educators to ensure that schools put the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling into practice.

“The Lau case has been around forever, but court cases are just a piece of paper. They’re not self-executing,” said Mr. Steinman, the lawyer who defended the plaintiffs before the U.S. Supreme Court. “Even 30 something years after Lau, we still have millions of students who—because of no fault of their own—languish in classrooms where content may be incomprensible.”

Ms. Gandara contended that students’ rights under Lau have eroded as “language policy for ELLs has become irrational, fueled by anti-immigration sentiment and American jingoism.” She observed that as was true when Lau v. Nichols was decided, schools have an inadequate supply of bilingual educators, inadequate assessments, a lack of appropriate textbooks for ELLs, and teachers who are not prepared to teach such students. She lamented the decline of bilingual education in the country.

Lastly, Mr. Zamora said federal courts are now reluctant to call for federal intervention in education. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, he said, is putting its efforts into seeing that English-language learners’ rights are upheld in education legislation, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, rather than spending a lot of time on court cases.

Nov. 2 update: Peter Zamora contacted me to clarify that MALDEF is still extensively litigating cases concerning English-language learners in the courts, while the organization has at the same time expanded its attention to education legislation. See his comment on this blog entry.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.