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Timeline: The U.S Supreme Court Case That Established English Learners’ Rights

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court offered up a landmark decision for federal English-learner policy in the Lau v. Nichols case, in which Chinese American families argued that the San Francisco Unified School District failed to provide thousands of children with language support in mainstream English-language classrooms. The ruling, citing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1974, made it so such a failure would be considered legal discrimination against students whose home language is not English.

Yet 50 years later, researchers argue that the Lau case—while significant for English learners’ civil rights and foundational to modern discussions over how to serve these students—left behind an incomplete legacy in terms of implementation and enforcement at the state and local levels.

The history of Lau is tied to a national debate over the merits of bilingual education for English learners and all other students—a conversation that continues to this day as U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona calls for multilingualism for all.

Here’s a timeline of key historical events leading up to and continuing after the seminal ruling.


Congress authorized the Bilingual Education Act, which included funding for schools and districts looking to implement bilingual education programs. In the late 1960s, there was a push for these programs to serve Mexican American and Puerto Rican students who were underserved in public schools, said Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos, a senior research fellow at Claremont Graduate University.


The U.S. Supreme Court rules on Lau v. Nichols on the basis of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1974, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in federally funded programs. With Lau incorporated into the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, the office of civil rights in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare—the predecessor to the education department—starts to investigate schools for compliance and offers bilingual education as a remedy.


The San Francisco Unified School District, which was at the heart of the Lau case, adopted its first master plan for K-12 bilingual bicultural education, which included language programs and English language development (ELD) for all English learners, according to the district.


In the Castañeda v. Pickard case, the federal 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 established three criteria for evaluating the adequacy of English-learner programs, which the office for civil rights then used for their investigations of Lau compliance.


A reauthorization of the Bilingual Education Act expands funding for special alternative instructional programs, or English-only programs. It was previously capped at 4 percent and grew to 25 percent. In the next decade, this cap would ultimately be removed.


Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which funds bilingual education begins to take on a formula model based on populations of English learners in each state for its grants as opposed to incentive grants for specific programs at schools, said Kenji Hakuta, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. Yet the office of bilingual education and minority languages affairs from 1993 to 1995 was still directly providing districts with incentive grants for programs that nurtured students’ home languages in addition to helping students acquire English, though it was less federal policy and more an internal decision from the office with approval from the education secretary, said Eugene García, professor emeritus at Arizona State University and former director of OBEMLA.

During this time some states including California and Arizona moved to ban bilingual education outright as part of anti-immigration policies.


No Child Left Behind marked the end of the office of bilingual education and minority languages affairs and the beginning of the office of English language acquisition, which officially opened in 2002, the year the No Child Left Behind Act passed. Title VII funds also became Title III. In 2008, control over Title III funding for supplemental support for English learners moved out of OELA and into the office of elementary and secondary education.


The San Francisco Unified School District was completely released from court supervision stemming from Lau to ensure it met its obligations to English learners.


Title III funding returned to OELA as part of the department’s push for expanding dual language programs and Seal of Biliteracy programs for all students. The San Francisco district also adopted a new “Roadmap for Multilingual Learner Achievement and Success.” Both moves signal a turning point in terms of focusing on English learners’ assets in shaping policy and practice.

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