U.S. Supreme Court Mandates Bilingual Education Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school districts must provide bilingual education to limited-English-speaking students. In 1975, the Office for Civil Rights established informal guidelines for four bilingual programs that would enable school districts to come into compliance with the Court’s ruling.

Summary of Event

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954)> that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution Fourteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) forbade school systems to segregate students into separate schools for only whites or African Americans. The decision effectively overturned a previous Court ruling, in Plessy v. Ferguson Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)> (1896), that such facilities could be “separate but equal.” Instead of desegregating, however, school systems in the American South engaged in massive resistance to the Court’s order during the next decade. Congress then passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits many types of discrimination. Title VI of the law bans discrimination by recipients of federal financial assistance, including school systems. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964[Title 06 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] Supreme Court, U.S.;bilingual education Bilingual education [kw]U.S. Supreme Court Mandates Bilingual Education (Jan. 21, 1974) [kw]Supreme Court Mandates Bilingual Education, U.S. (Jan. 21, 1974) [kw]Court Mandates Bilingual Education, U.S. Supreme (Jan. 21, 1974) [kw]Bilingual Education, U.S. Supreme Court Mandates (Jan. 21, 1974) [kw]Education, U.S. Supreme Court Mandates Bilingual (Jan. 21, 1974) Supreme Court, U.S.;bilingual education Bilingual education [g]North America;Jan. 21, 1974: U.S. Supreme Court Mandates Bilingual Education[01510] [g]United States;Jan. 21, 1974: U.S. Supreme Court Mandates Bilingual Education[01510] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 21, 1974: U.S. Supreme Court Mandates Bilingual Education[01510] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Jan. 21, 1974: U.S. Supreme Court Mandates Bilingual Education[01510] [c]Education;Jan. 21, 1974: U.S. Supreme Court Mandates Bilingual Education[01510] Douglas, William O. Lau, Kinney Kinmon Nichols, Alan Hammond

In 1965, Congress adopted the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments, Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments (1965) under which larger numbers of Asian immigrants arrived in the United States than ever before, and their non-English-speaking children enrolled in public schools. In the San Francisco Unified School District, students were required to attend school until sixteen years of age, but in 1967, 2,856 students could not adequately comprehend instruction in English. Although 433 students were given supplemental courses in English on a full-time basis and 633 on a part-time basis, the remaining 1,790 students received no additional language instruction. Nevertheless, the state of California required all students to graduate with proficiency in English and permitted school districts to provide bilingual education, if needed. Except for the 433 students in the full-time bilingual education program, Chinese-speaking students were integrated in the same classrooms with English-speaking students but lacked sufficient language ability to derive benefit from the instruction. Of the 1,066 students taking bilingual courses, only 260 had bilingual teachers.

Some parents of the Chinese-speaking children, concerned that their children would drop out of school and experience pressure to join criminal youth gangs, launched protests. Various organizations formed in the Chinese American community, which in turn made studies, issued proposals, circulated leaflets, and tried to negotiate with the San Francisco Board of Education. When the board refused to respond adequately, a suit was filed in federal district court in San Francisco on March 25, 1970. The plaintiffs were Kinney Kinmon Lau and eleven other non-English-speaking students, mostly U.S. citizens born of Chinese parents. The defendants were Alan Hammond Nichols, president of the San Francisco Board of Education, the rest of the Board of Education, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

On May 25, 1970, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issued the following regulation pursuant to its responsibility to monitor Title VI compliance: “Where inability to speak and understand the English language excludes national-origin minority group children from effective participation in the educational program offered by a school district, the district must take affirmative steps to rectify the language deficiency in order to open its instructional program to these students.” OCR had sided with the Chinese-speaking students.

One day later, the court ruled that the school system was violating neither Title VI nor the Fourteenth Amendment; instead, the plaintiffs were characterized as asking for “special rights above those granted other children.” Lawyers representing the Chinese Americans then appealed, this time supported by a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the U.S. Department of Justice. On January 8, 1973, the court of appeals also ruled adversely, stating that there was no duty “to rectify appellants’ special deficiencies, as long as they provided these students with access to the same educational system made available to all other students.” The appeals court claimed that the children’s problems were “not the result of law enacted by the state . . . but the result of deficiency created by themselves in failing to learn the English language.”

On June 12, 1973, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Oral argument was heard on December 10, 1973. On January 21, 1974, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the lower courts. Justice William O. Douglas delivered the majority opinion, which included this memorable statement: “There is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.” The Court returned the case to the district court so that the school system could design a plan of language-needs assessments and programs for addressing those needs. In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger Burger, Warren E. and Justice Harry A. Blackmun Blackmun, Harry A. observed that the number of underserved non-English-speaking, particularly Chinese-speaking, students was substantial in this case, but the justices would not order bilingual education for “just a single child who speaks only German or Polish or Spanish or any language other than English.”


The Supreme Court’s decision in Lau ultimately resulted in changes to enable Chinese-speaking students to obtain equal educational opportunity in San Francisco’s public schools, although it was more than a year before such changes began to be implemented. The greatest impact has been among Spanish-speaking students, members of the largest language-minority group in the United States.

Subsequently, Congress passed the Equal Educational Opportunities Act in 1974, Equal Educational Opportunities Act (1974) a provision of which superseded Lau by requiring “appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation,” which a federal district court later applied to the need for new methods to deal with speakers of Black English in Martin Luther King, Jr., Elementary School Children v. Michigan Board of Education (1979). Martin Luther King, Jr., Elementary School Children v. Michigan Board of Education (1979)> Also in 1974, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 Bilingual Education Act (1968) was amended to provide more federal funds for second-language instruction so that school districts could be brought into compliance with Lau. Bilingualism was further recognized when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1975, Voting Rights Act (1975) which established guidelines for providing ballots in the languages of certain minority groups.

In 1975, OCR established informal guidelines for four bilingual programs that would enable school districts to come into compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. The main requirement was first to test students to determine language proficiency. Students with no English proficiency at all were to be exposed to bilingual/bicultural programs or transitional bilingual education programs; secondary schools also had the option of providing “English as a second language” or “high intensive language training” programs. If a student had some familiarity with English, these four programs would be required only if testing revealed that the student had low achievement test scores.

Because the OCR guidelines were not published in the Federal Register for public comment and later modification, they were challenged on September 29, 1978, in the federal district court of Alaska (Northwest Arctic School District v. Califano). Northwest Arctic School District v. Califano (1978)> The case was settled by a consent decree in 1980, when the federal agency agreed to publish a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking”; however, soon after Ronald Reagan took office as president, that notice was withdrawn. By 1985, a manual to identify types of language discrimination was compiled to supersede the 1975 guidelines, but it also was not published in the Federal Register for public comment. Meanwhile, methods for educating limited-English-speaking students evolved beyond the OCR’s original conceptions, and further litigation followed. In 1981, a U.S. circuit court ruled in Castañeda v. Pickard Castañeda v. Pickard (1981)> that a bilingual educational program is lawful when it satisfies three tests: The program is recognized by professionals as sound in educational theory, the program is designed to implement that theory, and the program actually results in students’ overcoming language barriers.

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, Reagan, Ronald federal civil rights monitoring focused more on “reverse discrimination” Reverse discrimination than on violations of equal educational opportunities. Congressional hearings were held to goad OCR into action. Although in 1991 OCR’s top priority was equal educational opportunities for national-origin minority and Native American students with limited-English proficiency (LEP) or non-English proficiency (NEP), results were difficult to discern, and a movement to make English the official language of the United States (the “English-only” movement) threatened to overturn Lau and related legislation. California’s Proposition 227, which was adopted in 1998 by popular vote, curtailed bilingual education in favor of mainstreaming. Arizona voters followed with a similar and even more restrictive measure calling for implementation of total immersion programs in 2000, indicating a popular backlash against bilingual programs in at least some states most affected by immigration. Supreme Court, U.S.;bilingual education Bilingual education

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Biegel, Stuart. “The Parameters of the Bilingual Education Debate in California Twenty Years After Lau v. Nichols.” Chicano-Latino Law Review 14 (Winter, 1994): 48-60. The status of Lau in light of the 1990’s English-only movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bull, Barry L., Royal T. Fruehling, and Virgie Chattergy. The Ethics of Multicultural and Bilingual Education. New York: Columbia University Teachers College Press, 1992. Contrasts how liberal, democratic, and communitarian approaches to education relate to bilingual and multicultural education.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fineberg, Elliot M., et al. “The Problems of Segregation and Inequality of Educational Opportunity.” In One Nation Indivisible: The Civil Rights Challenge for the 1990’s, edited by Reginald C. Govan and William L. Taylor. Washington, D.C.: Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, 1989. Reviews underenforcement of laws dealing with language-minority students during the Reagan years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moran, Rachel F. “Of Democracy, Devaluation, and Bilingual Education.” Creighton Law Review 26 (February, 1993): 255-319. Contrasts special-interest bargaining and bureaucratic rule-making methods for dealing with needs for bilingual education.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newman, Terri Lunn. “Proposal: Bilingual Education Guidelines for the Courts and the Schools.” Emory Law Journal 33 (Spring, 1984): 577-629. Legal requirements of Lau presented as guidelines for school systems in establishing bilingual programs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Orlando, Carlos J., Mary Carol Combs, and Virginia P. Collier. Bilingual and ESL Classrooms: Teaching in Multicultural Contexts. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006. Discusses the need for bilingual education, alternative approaches available, and resources required.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">San Miguel, Guadalupe. Contested Policy: The Rise and Fall of Federal Bilingual Education in the United States, 1960-2001. Denton, Tex.: University of North Texas Press, 2004. Traces the evolution of the contentious program, focusing on the years after 1978. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United States Commission on Civil Rights. A Better Chance to Learn: Bilingual-Bicultural Education. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1975. Assesses the national impact of Lau; contains the text of the Supreme Court decision and related documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wang, L. Ling-chi. “Lau v. Nichols: History of Struggle for Equal and Quality Education.” In Asian-Americans: Social and Psychological Perspectives, edited by Russell Endo, Stanley Sue, and Nathaniel N. Wagner. Palo Alto, Calif.: Science & Behavior Books, 1980. Describes how the Lau case was pursued, especially the resistance to implementation.

U.S. Supreme Court Endorses Busing to End School Segregation

U.S. Supreme Court Protects Home Schooling

U.S. Law Provides for Public Education of Disabled Children

U.S. Supreme Court Bans Racial Quotas in College Admissions

Missouri Program Promotes Parental Involvement in Education

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Goals, Not Quotas, to Remedy Discrimination

Texas’s Method of Funding Schools Is Ruled Unconstitutional

U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Random Drug Testing in Schools

Categories: History