Bilingual Education Act of 1968

The Bilingual Education Act was the first federal legislation to address the unique educational needs of students with limited English-speaking ability (later called “limited English proficient”). It set the stage for further legislation regarding equality of educational opportunity for language minorities.

From 1921 to 1965, immigration to the United States was significantly restricted by the national origin system, which placed a quota on the number of immigrants from any given country. Due to the specifications of the system, immigration from non-European nations was particularly restricted. In 1965, these restrictions were lifted with the passage of the [a]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965Immigration and Nationality Act. As a result of this new legislation, there was a significant increase in the number of immigrants from non-European countries, which had a profound impact on the face of the nation. The effects of increased numbers were felt in many societal institutions, and new issues arose with regard to integrating this diverse population into society. The education system in particular experienced a significant shift in immigrant composition. Schools were faced with large numbers of immigrant children who did not speak English as their first language.[a]Bilingual Education Act of 1968[a]Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968[a]Bilingual Education Act of 1968[a]Elementary and Secondary Education
Act of 1968
[cat]LAWS;Bilingual Education Act of 1968[00580][cat]LANGUAGE ISSUES;Bilingual Education Act of 1968[00580][cat]EDUCATION;Bilingual Education Act of 1968[00580][cat]CHILDREN;Bilingual Education Act of 1968[00580]

In 1967, concerned about the academic performance and attainment of Spanish-speaking children, Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas proposed a bill that would provide assistance to schools serving large populations of Spanish-speaking children. The bill would eventually be passed as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and became officially known as the Bilingual Education Act of 1968. The act in its final form addressed the needs of any child of “limited English-speaking ability” (section 702). Through federal grants, assistance would be provided to school districts that wished to develop bilingual education programs. Funds could be used for program development and research, staff training, and educational resources. Schools serving high populations of low-income children were to be the primary beneficiaries. The goal was to encourage school districts to incorporate native-language instruction. Participation was voluntary, and the government refrained from providing specific guidelines with regard to the types of programs to be developed.

Although the Bilingual Education Act has been amended several times since its passage in 1968, some of the most substantial amendments were enacted in 1974. These amendments were influenced by a Supreme Court ruling that year in [c]Lau v. NicholsLau v. Nichols, a case initiated on behalf of Chinese students in San Francisco’s schools. Because they had limited skills in English, the students were performing poorly in school. It was argued that they were therefore receiving an unequal education. The Supreme Court agreed, stating that equal educational opportunity consisted of more than just equal educational treatment. The Bilingual Education Act was amended to address these concerns. The 1974 amendments clarified program goals, more clearly defined bilingual education programs, helped to establish regional support centers, and provided funding for efforts to develop the programs (curricula, staff, and research). The amended act provided new grants for technical assistance, special training programs, and a clearinghouse to disseminate information. The criterion that only low-income students could be beneficiaries was removed.[a]Bilingual Education Act of
[a]Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Theodore. “Bilingual Education: The American Experience.” The Modern Language Journal 55, no. 7 (1971): 427-440.
  • Lyons, James J. “The Past and Future Directions of Federal Bilingual-Education Policy.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 508 (1990): 66-80.
  • Wiese, Ann-Marie, and Eugene E. Garcia. “The Bilingual Education Act: Language Minority Students and U.S. Federal Educational Policy.” International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 4, no. 4 (2001): 29-48.

Bilingual education

Child immigrants


English as a second language

English-only and official English movements

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Language issues

Lau v. Nichols

Quota systems