Congress Enacts the Bilingual Education Act

By passing the Bilingual Education Act, Congress provided federal assistance to schoolchildren of limited English-speaking ability. Bilingual education has remained controversial.

Summary of Event

Although hailed as the world’s melting pot, for most of its history the United States has considered itself to be a nation of one language and culture. This conformist ethic maintained that as immigrants came to the United States they should give up their native customs and languages and assimilate Assimilation as quickly as possible into the Anglo-American mainstream. Underlying this drive toward conformity was the unwritten rule in both Anglo and immigrant communities that to succeed, immigrants must adjust to American culture instead of expecting American culture to adjust to them. Bilingual Education Act (1968)
Education;language issues
Languages;cultural importance
Immigration;United States
Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)
[kw]Congress Enacts the Bilingual Education Act (Jan. 2, 1968)
[kw]Bilingual Education Act, Congress Enacts the (Jan. 2, 1968)
[kw]Education Act, Congress Enacts the Bilingual (Jan. 2, 1968)
Bilingual Education Act (1968)
Education;language issues
Languages;cultural importance
Immigration;United States
Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)
[g]North America;Jan. 2, 1968: Congress Enacts the Bilingual Education Act[09630]
[g]United States;Jan. 2, 1968: Congress Enacts the Bilingual Education Act[09630]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 2, 1968: Congress Enacts the Bilingual Education Act[09630]
[c]Education;Jan. 2, 1968: Congress Enacts the Bilingual Education Act[09630]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Jan. 2, 1968: Congress Enacts the Bilingual Education Act[09630]
[c]Language, linguistics, and philology;Jan. 2, 1968: Congress Enacts the Bilingual Education Act[09630]
Yarborough, Ralph Webster
Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;education policy
Scheuer, James Haas

Although ethnic neighborhoods and enclaves did exist and in some areas even flourished, the mainstream of American society was one of English-derived Anglo tradition. It was believed by many educators that the best way to prepare the children of immigrant parents for life in this culture was to immerse them in the English language and American customs as quickly as possible. In this process of immersion, it was thought that the children who could learn would; those who could not learn were believed to have inferior mental abilities and therefore to be incapable of obtaining the American Dream. This philosophy, besides confirming the prevailing notion of Anglo-American superiority, also fit well with the notion of social Darwinism popular in the late nineteenth century.

The reality for most immigrant children in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was that they were much more likely to sink than swim. In 1908, 13 percent of immigrant children who were enrolled in New York City schools at age twelve were likely to go on to high school, as opposed to 32 percent of the native-born. This trend was mirrored across the country, as non-English-speaking immigrant children, not understanding the language of instruction, fell further and further behind their native-born classmates. While English dominance remained the rule across most of the United States in the years preceding World War I, certain areas of the country were forced by circumstance to provide limited native-language instruction. These areas included parts of Louisiana, where French was the language of the majority of the population, and the Northeast and Midwest, where there were substantial German American populations. These areas, as well as several Native American reservations, provided instruction in the language of the non-English-speaking population. With the advent of World War I, an intense wave of nationalism swept the country. It reinforced the negative reaction of many Americans to the large wave of immigration that had begun in the 1890’s.

Among the first casualties of this increase in “nativism” were programs for instructing schoolchildren in any language other than English. By 1925, thirty-seven states had passed laws requiring instruction in English no matter the dominant culture of the region. This trend continued into the 1950’s. By the end of that decade, however, there were growing indications that more and more students with limited English proficiency were falling through the cracks of the educational system and thereby becoming trapped in language-induced poverty and despair. For those children who attempted to stay in school, the outcome was often little better than if they had dropped out. During this period, the preferred method of dealing with those who spoke little or no English was to tag them as mentally disabled or learning impaired. Once so characterized, these children were placed in remedial instruction programs, where they were constantly reminded how different they were from their native-English-speaking classmates. For those who managed to avoid being tagged as “retarded,” the most likely educational track was vocational, foreclosing access to higher-paying professional occupations.

Demographics began to force a change in the attitudes of many public officials by the early 1960’s. As immigrant populations began to flood into the schools of the South, districts were forced to consider alternative means of instruction. The first to do so was Coral Way, Florida. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, waves of Cuban refugees entered South Florida. Responding to the demand for quality bilingual instruction, the Coral Way School District implemented the first state-supported program to instruct students in their native language, thereby easing their transition to English. Since there was no U.S. precedent for the school district to draw upon, it turned to the American schools in Ecuador and Guatemala, which sought to develop fluency in both languages. The bilingual program was implemented for the first three grades of Coral Way schools and provided all students, Anglo and Cuban, instruction in both Spanish and English. Given the middle- to upper-class background of much of the early Cuban immigrant population, there was no need for a compensatory component to the program to care for general language or learning deficiencies. With the success of the Coral Way project, the precedent for state and local government involvement in language assistance was set.

By the mid-1960’s, there were indications that the federal government was ready to become involved as well. As the national government began to investigate poverty and discrimination, several pieces of legislation were enacted that paved the way for the eventual adoption of the Bilingual Education Act. Of these, the two most important were the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically Title VI barring discrimination in education, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which established the precedent for federal involvement in aid to impoverished and educationally deprived students. In 1968, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would be the vehicle by which Congress funded bilingual education.

By the time the Ninetieth Congress opened in 1967, bilingual education had become a popular topic. More than thirty-five bills on the subject were introduced during the session, as many members of Congress became aware of the injustice of forcing immigrant children to struggle to learn lessons in what was to them a foreign language. Of these bills, Senate Bill 428, introduced by Ralph Webster Yarborough, was typical. It proposed amending the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to create a new section, Title VII, providing bilingual education for those students speaking Spanish at birth or whose parents had originated in either Mexico or Puerto Rico. The Yarborough bill thus was not universal in scope but rather a concession to the Spanish-speaking community—by far the nation’s largest non-English-speaking minority and a group that was increasingly vocal.

Mexican Americans were of growing importance in Yarborough’s home state of Texas. Yarborough’s approach was immediately attacked by both the White House and members of Congress. President Lyndon B. Johnson had portrayed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as the hallmark of his War on Poverty and saw no need to modify it. Commissioner of Education Harold Howe Howe, Harold, II II formalized this position when he proposed that instead of creating a new Title VII, additional monies could be appropriated under the existing Title I of the act. This section earmarked funds for language programs in economically impoverished areas, although it did not require schools to use languages other than English to receive funding.

In Congress, numerous members rose in opposition to the bill’s limitation of bilingual education to one ethnic group, no matter how potentially powerful that group might be. It was argued that targeting one group for aid would unconstitutionally deny equal protection to myriad other ethnic groups and language minorities scattered across the country. Representative James Haas Scheuer of New York proposed a compromise that would provide funding for bilingual education to school districts with substantial non-English-speaking populations residing in economically disadvantaged areas. To receive funding, districts would be required to provide instruction in a student’s native tongue until the child could demonstrate competence in English. Although Senator Yarborough resisted the expansion of the act’s scope, he relented when the White House gave its grudging approval.

With this political hurdle cleared, President Johnson signed the amendments adding Title VII to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on January 2, 1968. Although no money was appropriated for 1968, $7.5 million was appropriated for 1969, enough to fund bilingual education for some twenty-seven thousand students.

Accompanying the political battle over the number of language groups to be served was a deeper philosophical struggle concerning the goals of bilingual education. Congress knew that it had to do something, but the “how” of bilingual education was unclear. The Bilingual Education Act created a framework for federal aid to schools with students of limited English ability but said little about whether the goal of the program should be a rapid transition to instruction in English or a slower approach allowing the maintenance of the child’s native language and customs. The act’s only significant stipulation was that to obtain federal aid a district had to use native languages in instruction. This lack of clarity contributed to the creation of an ideological conflict that lasted into the twenty-first century and brought the overall impact and effectiveness of bilingual education into question.


The federal government’s commitment to bilingual education grew into the hundreds of millions of dollars by the mid-1970’s. Reauthorizations in 1972 and 1974 broadened the scope of the legislation and provided additional programs. These efforts were aided by both the federal courts and the Office of Civil Rights, Office of Civil Rights, U.S. or OCR (then a part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare).

In 1974, the Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;education ruled in Lau v. Nichols
Lau v. Nichols (1974) that school districts with a substantial number of non-English-speaking students must take steps to overcome language difficulties. This provided the OCR with the backing needed to force recalcitrant school districts to initiate bilingual education plans. These so-called Lau plans greatly expanded the number of native-language instructional programs available across the country. They also set standards for when students qualified for inclusion in a program and when they could be allowed (or forced) to exit. During this period, test scores repeatedly showed that students exiting from well-designed and well-implemented programs consistently performed at or above grade level and thus were on a par with their native English-speaking classmates.

By the mid-1980’s, several studies, including an influential one by the General Accounting Office, had shown that while there were problems in the implementation of some programs, the philosophy of instruction in students’ native languages during the transition to English not only worked but also allowed students to obtain grade-level standing much more quickly than English-only programs. Correspondingly, as the English-dominant approach became the program of choice for many districts, the performance of limited-English students once again declined. As with any attempt to expand the rights of the few, the Bilingual Education Act was politically charged and buffeted by ideological storms. What was indisputable, however, was that the leap of faith that Congress undertook in 1968 was aimed at the future—a future in which the dominant Anglo-American culture would be forced to adapt to an increasingly diverse population. In creating the Bilingual Education Act, Congress attempted to bend the will of the many to the needs of the few and provide a chance for the children of all people to share in the American Dream. Bilingual Education Act (1968)
Education;language issues
Languages;cultural importance
Immigration;United States
Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)

Further Reading

  • August, Diane, and Eugene E. Garcia. Language Minority Education in the United States: Research, Policy, and Practice. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1988. A thorough discussion of the theoretical groundings of bilingual education as well as federal and state attempts to implement these programs. Well-indexed and referenced. Includes a particularly well-written chapter on specific types of bilingual education programs.
  • Brisk, Maria Estela. Bilingual Education: From Compensatory to Quality Schooling. 2d ed. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum, 2006. A comprehensive study of bilingual education in the United States. Highly recommended for an updated overview of the contentious issue.
  • Crawford, James. Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom. 5th ed. Los Angeles: Bilingual Educational Services, 2005. Formerly Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice (1999). Written from a lay perspective, this book presents a good summary of the competing educational and political philosophies that characterize the debate over bilingual education. Touches on all aspects of bilingual education: political, practical, and philosophical. Includes a CD-ROM.
  • Grant, Joseph H., and Ross Goldsmith. Bilingual Education and Federal Law: An Overview. Austin, Tex.: Dissemination and Assessment Center for Bilingual Education, 1979. As its name implies, this book summarizes and comments on the various federal laws pertaining to bilingual education. A particular strength is the author’s excellent weaving together of the often conflicting priorities of the Congress, the president, and the courts to show how bilingual education has been affected.
  • Leibowitz, Arnold H. The Bilingual Education Act: A Legislative Analysis. Rosslyn, Va.: InterAmerica Research Associates, National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, 1980. A compact history both of the original 1968 amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that created the Title VII bilingual provisions and of the 1974 reauthorization. The discussions of the statutory provisions of each are thorough, but there is little discussion of impacts.
  • Porter, Rosalie Pedalino. Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education. 2d ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1996. A fascinating presentation of the arguments opposed to bilingual education. Using both theoretical discussions and historical examples drawn from twenty years of bilingual practice, the author builds the argument that bilingual education has failed both the students it is supposed to help and the society that is paying for it. Includes a new epilogue.
  • Sandoval-Martinez, Steven. How Much Bilingual Education? Educational vs. Legislative Considerations. Los Alamitos, Calif.: National Center for Bilingual Research, 1984. A brief work that presents the implications of legislative standards on bilingual program exit criteria. Demonstrates how standardized exit requirements are incongruent with the educational needs of most students.
  • Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. “Multilingualism and the Education of Minority Students.” In Minority Education: From Shame to Struggle, edited by T. Skutnabb-Kangas and J. Cummins. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters, 1988. In keeping with the theme of the book, this chapter looks beyond the minority education problems in the United States and takes a more global perspective. The author investigates the impact that a multilingual population has on a society and the demands this imposes on the educational system to integrate language minorities into the mainstream.
  • Stein, Colman Brez, Jr. Sink or Swim: The Politics of Bilingual Education. New York: Praeger, 1986. Provides a good history of bilingual education policy from its modern inception in Coral Way, Florida, through the 1984 reauthorization. Contains a substantial discussion of state initiatives and how they worked to support or undermine federal programs.

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