Lau v. Nichols: Are Schools Required to Provide Bilingual Instruction?

A young boy writes English words on a chalkboard.
A young Chinese student writes on a chalkboard at the Commodore Stockton School in Chinatown, San Francisco in 1955, prior to the integration of the San Francisco Unified School District that led to Lau v. Nichols.

Orlando / Three Lions / Getty Images 

Lau v. Nichols (1974) was a Supreme Court case that examined whether federally funded schools must offer supplementary English language courses to non-English-speaking students.

The case centered on the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD)'s 1971 decision not to provide 1,800 non-English-speaking students with a way to improve their English proficiency, despite the fact that all public school classes were taught in English.

The Supreme Court ruled that refusing to provide non-English-speaking students with supplemental language courses violated the California Education Code and Section 601 of ​the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The unanimous decision pushed public schools to develop plans to increase the linguistic skills of students for whom English was a second language.​

Facts of the Case

In 1971, a federal decree integrated the San Francisco Unified School District. As a result, the district became responsible for the education of over 2,800 non-English-speaking students of Chinese ancestry.  

All classes were taught in English in accordance with the district handbook. The school system provided supplemental materials to improve English language proficiency to approximately one thousand of the non-English-speaking students, but failed to provide any additional instruction or materials to the remaining 1,800 students.

Lau, along with other students, filed a class action suit against the district, arguing that the lack of supplemental materials violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits programs that receive federal assistance from discriminating based on race, color or national origin.

Constitutional Issues

Under the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is a school district required to provide supplemental English language materials for students whose primary language is not English?

The Arguments

Twenty years before Lau v. Nichols, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) struck down the “separate but equal” concept for educational facilities and found that keeping students separated by race was inherently unequal under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Lau’s attorneys used this ruling to support their argument. They contended that if the school taught all core requirement classes in English but did not provide supplemental English language courses, it violated the equal protection clause, because it did not afford non-native English speakers the same learning opportunities as native speakers.

Lau’s attorneys also relied on Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to show that programs receiving federal funding could not discriminate based on race, color or national origin. Failing to provide supplemental courses to help students of Chinese ancestry was a form of discrimination, according to Lau’s attorneys.

Counsel for SFUSD argued that the lack of supplemental English language courses did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

They contended that the school had provided Lau and other students of Chinese ancestry with the same materials and instruction as students of other races and ethnicities. Before the case reached the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with SFUSD because the district proved that they had not caused the deficiency in the English language level of the students. SFUSD's counsel argued that the district should not have to account for the fact that every student starts school with a different educational background and language proficiency.

Majority Opinion

The Court chose not to address the Fourteenth Amendment claim that the school district’s conduct violated the equal protection clause. Instead, they reached their opinion using the California Education Code in the SFUSD Handbook and Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 1973, the California Education Code required that:

  • Children between the ages of 6 and 16 attend full-time classes taught in English.
  • A student cannot graduate from a grade if they have not achieved English proficiency.
  • Bilingual instruction is permitted as long as it does not interfere with regular English course instruction.

Under these guidelines, the Court found that the school could not claim it was giving non-native speakers the same access to education as native speakers. “Basic English skills are at the very core of what these public schools teach,” the Court opined. “Imposition of a requirement that, before a child can effectively participate in the educational program, he must already have acquired those basic skills is to make a mockery of public education.”

In order to receive federal funding, a school district needs to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) regularly issued guidelines to help schools adhere to sections the Civil Rights Act. In 1970, the HEW guidelines mandated that schools “take affirmative steps” to help students overcome language deficiencies. The Court found that SFUSD had not taken “affirmative steps” to help those 1,800 students increase their English language level, thus violating Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Impact

The Lau v. Nichols case ended in a unanimous decision in favor of bilingual instruction to help non-native English speaking students improve their English language competency.

The case eased the transition into education for students whose first language was not English.

However, some argue that the Supreme Court left the question unresolved. The Court never specified what steps the school district needed to take in order to decrease English language deficiencies. Under Lau, schools districts must provide some sort of supplemental instruction, but how much and to what end remained up to their discretion. The lack of defined standards resulted in many federal court cases which attempted to further define the school's role in English-as-a-second-language curriculums. 

Sources

  • Lau v. Nichols, U.S. 563 (1974).
  • Mock, Brentin. “How Schools Continue to Deny Civil Rights Protections for Immigrant Students.” CityLab, 1 July 2015, www.citylab.com/equity/2015/07/how-us-schools-are-failing-immigrant-children/397427/.