Lau v. Nichols

Based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lau v. Nichols required school districts to provide compensatory training for students with limited proficiency in the use of the English language, but the ruling left it up to educational authorities and school districts to decide which methods of instruction to utilize.

In 1971, San Francisco’s school district was racially integrated by court order. At that time, the school district had about 2,800 students of Chinese ancestry who were unable to communicate in the English language. The district provided 1,000 of these students with special instruction in English but provided no such instruction for the remaining 1,800 students. The parents of those not receiving special instruction went to court in a class-action suit, arguing that the district’s policy violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited educational discrimination based on national origin. In addition, the parents asserted that the district’s policy was contrary to the requirements of the equal protection clause of the [a]Fourteenth Amendment;equal protection clauseFourteenth Amendment.[c]Lau v. NicholsEducation;Lau v. NicholsBilingual education;Lau v. NicholsEnglish as a second languageLanguage issues;Lau v. Nichols[a]Civil
Rights Act of 1964
[c]Lau v. NicholsEducation;Lau v. NicholsBilingual education;Lau v. NicholsEnglish as a second languageLanguage issues;Lau v. Nichols[cat]COURT CASES;Lau v. Nichols[03180][cat]EAST ASIAN IMMIGRANTS;Lau v. Nichols[03180][cat]EDUCATION;Lau v. Nichols[03180][cat]CHILDREN;Lau v. Nichols[03180][cat]LANGUAGE ISSUES;Lau v. Nichols[03180][a]Civil Rights Act of 1964

Although the lower federal courts ruled against the parents, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the district’s failure to provide the students with appropriate language instruction denied them equal educational opportunity on the basis of ethnicity. In writing the opinion for the Court, Justice Douglas, William O.William O. Douglas relied entirely on the [a]Civil Rights Act of 1964Civil Rights Act of 1964 and wrote that there was no need to consider whether the district’s actions might also be inconsistent with the Fourteenth Amendment. To buttress his position, Douglas observed that the district received a substantial amount of federal financial assistance and that a 1970 antidiscrimination guideline of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare required federally funded school districts to rectify the “linguistic deficiencies” of students from non-English-speaking homes. While requiring “affirmative steps” to overcome the language barrier, Douglas did not prescribe any particular means toward that end, whether bilingual instruction, English as a second language (ESL) training, or another approach.

The Lau decision significantly expanded the rights of limited-English-proficient (LEP) students throughout the nation. Among other things, it popularized the notion that language is so closely interwoven with a group’s national culture that language-based discrimination constitutes a form of national-origin discrimination. The decision helped encourage the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to issue the “Lau Remedies” of 1975, which required bilingual instruction in elementary schools where enough LEP students of the same language made it practical. Enforced by the Office of Civil Rights, five hundred school districts adopted bilingual programs within the next five years. Experts disagreed, however, about the effectiveness of such programs. The Republican administrations of the 1980’s allowed a more flexible, case-by-case approach, and most districts abandoned bilingualism and attempted to help LEP students with ESL classes.[c]Lau v. NicholsEducation;Lau v. NicholsBilingual education;Lau v. NicholsEnglish as a second
Language issues;Lau v. Nichols

Further Reading

  • Epstein, Lee, and Thomas Walker. Constitutional Law for a Changing America: Rights, Liberties, and Justice. 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2006.
  • O’Brien, David M. Constitutional Law and Politics. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.

Bilingual education

Bilingual Education Act of 1968


Constitution, U.S.


English as a second language

History of immigration after 1891


Supreme Court, U.S.