English-Language Learners

How a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court Case Still Influences English-Learner Education

By Ileana Najarro — January 19, 2024 7 min read
High school teacher Tara Hobson talks with a student in the school cafeteria at San Francisco International High School in San Francisco on April 19, 2016. Some districts have gone to extraordinary lengths to accommodate migrant students, who often come to join relatives, sometimes escaping criminal gangs or extreme poverty. San Francisco International High School rewrote young-adult novels at a basic level to spark the newcomers' interest in reading.
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English learners, or students in need of support to improve their English-language proficiency, comprised about 10 percent of the overall national public school student population as of 2020.

Over the last 50 years, these students saw an evolution in schools’ legal responsibilities to them, the type of instruction they receive, and the assessments used to measure their linguistic and academic progress. Even the terms used to legally identify this student population transformed. But exactly how well districts meet English learners’ linguistic, academic, and social-emotional needs still varies widely across and within states.

One key turning point, researchers say, is the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Lau v. Nichols, delivered Jan. 21, 1974.

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Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William O. Douglas is shown in an undated photo.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, shown in an undated photo, wrote the opinion in <i>Lau</i> v. <i>Nichols</i>, the 1974 decision holding that the San Francisco school system had denied Chinese-speaking schoolchildren a meaningful opportunity to participate in their education.

The case, brought forth by Chinese American families against the San Francisco Unified School District, focused on the district’s failure to provide language support to thousands of Chinese-speaking students in mainstream classrooms.

The court argued that to deny English-language support to students in need of it would constitute discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1974. Without such support, it concluded, students had limited access to federally funded mainstream education. It addressed the need for equitable resources to ensure access to equal education, researchers said.

Lau became a landmark ruling for federal English-learner policy and legislation. But as with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision on racial segregation in schools, researchers debate how effective the implementation and enforcement of the ruling has been.

“I would compare Lau with Brown, where it’s, yes, important, but we’re more segregated today than we were in 1954 in terms of public schools,” said Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos, a senior research fellow at Claremont Graduate University whose work has focused on education policy and finance equity for traditionally marginalized populations.

Ahead of Lau‘s 50th anniversary, and a Jan. 22 online event hosted by Claremont Graduate University and sponsored by a number of leading English learner research groups, commemorating the case, researchers spoke with Education Week about the ruling’s legacy and the work that remains to ensure all English learners receive high quality linguistic and academic instruction.

The policy legacy of Lau

Before Lau, federal policy was not as directive in terms of what school districts and states had to do concerning English learners, researchers said.

Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act in 1968, and the resulting Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act offered districts grants toward bilingual education programs. But there was no federal requirement for districts to develop such programs, said Kenji Hakuta, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and expert on English learner policy and bilingualism.

Lau itself did not prescribe any particular type of language support for English learners.

After Lau was codified into federal law through the 1974 Equal Educational Opportunities Act, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare—the precursor to the federal Education Department—created what was called “Lau remedies.” The office offered bilingual education as a possible remedy to schools found in violation of Lau, Hakuta said. This never became official federal regulation.

“The Lau remedy itself was controversial,” Hakuta said. “During the Carter administration, when this was happening, there was a lot of political reluctance to get into the bilingual waters, so to speak.”

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High school English teacher Puja Clifford sits below signs posted on a wall in her classroom at San Francisco International High School in San Francisco on April 19, 2016. The school accommodated migrant students by rewriting young-adult novels at a basic level to spark the newcomers' interest in reading.
High school English teacher Puja Clifford sits below signs posted on a wall in her classroom at San Francisco International High School in San Francisco on April 19, 2016. English learner education, including for migrant students, has evolved over the last 50 days after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case.
Jeff Chiu/AP

Then came 1981’s Castañeda v. Pickard. The United States Fifth Circuit Court found the Raymondville Independent school district in Texas in violation of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act by not meeting the needs of English learners. The court issued a decision establishing three criteria to evaluate the adequacy of a district’s English-learner program:

  • Whether the program is “informed by an educational theory recognized as sound by some experts in the field or, at least, deemed a legitimate experimental strategy.”
  • Whether the programs and practices used by a school system are “reasonably calculated to implement effectively the educational theory adopted by the school.”
  • And whether the school district evaluates whether its programs “produce results indicating that the language barriers confronting students are actually being overcome.”

The Education Department’s office of civil rights ended up using these criteria in its memo to investigate compliance with Lau moving forward, Hakuta said. However, bilingual education was no longer a top remedy offered. The Reagan administration started lifting caps on funding for English-only programs for English learners in 1988.

From the 1980s through the early 2000s, efforts to interpret the compliance of Lau via bilingual education took another major hit. States—including California, where the Lau case began, and Arizona for example, passed ballot initiatives rooted in anti-immigration policy that outright banned bilingual education. They were permissible because Lau hadn’t mandated how to best ensure English learners had equal access to academic content, despite some researchers favoring bilingual education, said Jimenez-Castellanos of Claremont Graduate University.

With No Child Left Behind, under the Bush administration, the office of bilingual education and minority languages affairs closed while the office of English language acquisition opened in 2002, and Title VII ultimately became Title III. Some researchers call this the last major policy shift following Lau. They argue the focus on complying with Lau became centered on English language acquisition, rather than students acquiring English while also strengthening their home language.

What happened in schools after Lau

Following Lau, several major developments emerged within instruction and assessment.

Some states, including California, now have English-learner master plans driving districts’ instructional decisions, Hakuta said.

San Francisco Unified declined an interview with Education Week, but pointed to its newest roadmap for English-learners adopted last year, which includes integrated English language development support in content classes, as well as focused language study for English learners.

Both concepts were started by Lau, Hakuta said.

However, as some states and districts are pushing ahead with San Francisco’s approach and even research-based dual language programming, others are still tied to English-only instruction, said Eugene García, professor emeritus at Arizona State University and a former director of the office of bilingual education and minority languages affairs.

Essentially in a post-Lau world, there is a mixed instructional landscape for English learners and their families nationally, with states and districts using strategies to comply with Lau and Castañeda, García said.

A more sustained change that happened in schools in part thanks to Lau is a refinement of assessments as an accountability tool, both García and Hakuta said. Early assessments for identifying English learners focused on listening and speaking skills whereas now reading and writing are also tested.

Since Lau, more states and districts have looked into the question of exactly how long students should remain in English learner programs, and how to effectively measure their linguistic and academic progress.

With the NCLB law, assessments of language proficiency also became a federal accountability measure. (Title III has recently moved to management under the office of English language acquisition, but the accountability provisions remain in place.)

Work on ensuring all English learners have access to high quality education remains, however.

Lau focused on deficits, specifically students’ need to improve their English-language proficiency. But discussions regarding English learners today tends to focus on their assets. This mindset shift is supported by research that finds students who exit out of English-learner programs academically outperform their mainstream peers, Hakuta said.

Current U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks of prioritizing multilingual education for all students, including expanding access to dual language programs.

However, more students are immigrating into the country each year with complex needs. Some dual-language programs end up locking out English learners from lower-income urban and rural areas, said Jimenez-Castellanos.

“From a policy perspective, and from a legal perspective, we still haven’t really clearly defined and then operationalized what is that comprehensible instruction for multilingual learners in a multilingual setting,” Jimenez-Castellanos said.

“I think that’s sort of the next frontier that hopefully this generation will pick up.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2024 edition of Education Week as How Lau v. Nichols Still Impacts English-Learner Education


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