Celebrating 50 Years of Lau v. Nichols

By Shekinah Hall

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Lau v. Nichols, a landmark decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rights of non-English-speaking students to engage in their education programs in a meaningful way — indicating a step towards equity in language access. 

In 1971, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) had almost 2,900 non-English-speaking students of Chinese ancestry. While the school system provided supplemental courses in English language to about 1,000 students, the rest of those students did not receive any supplemental instruction. All regular classes were taught exclusively in English.

Represented by the National Center for Youth Law (at the time called the Youth Law Center) among others, Kinney Kimmon Lau and other students who did not speak English and received no supplemental instruction filed a class action suit against SFUSD. The students claimed that by failing to provide all non-English-speaking students with supplemental English classes, SFUSD created unequal educational opportunities and violated students’ rights under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives federal financial assistance.

A federal district court ruled that SFUSD did not violate the equal protection clause because the non-English-speaking students were provided the same instruction that was available to all other students in the district. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision. The students appealed the appellate court’s decision because, although the students were technically permitted to receive the instruction, the absence of English language supports meant that their access was less than their English-speaking peers. The National Education Association (NEA), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), and the American Jewish Committee were among many who filed amicus briefs with the Supreme Court in support of the students.

In 1974, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the students. The Court upheld the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s interpretation that Title VI requires schools to take affirmative steps to support students’ English language acquisition. The Court determined that SFUSD’s failure to provide non-English-speaking students of Chinese ancestry supplemental English classes denied those students a meaningful opportunity to participate in the public educational program and, as such, violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Court relied solely on Title VI and did not address the 14th Amendment equal protection complaint. In 2015, the Department of Education issued updated guidance, which reaffirmed school districts’ legal obligation under Title VI to take affirmative steps to address language barriers so that English learners (ELs) — children whose first language is not English — may participate meaningfully and equally in schools’ educational programs and services.

Since the Lau decision, ELs have become one of the fastest growing parts of the K12 student population. In the 1993-94 school year, there were approximately 2.1 million ELs in public schools across the country, or 5.1 percent of the total student population. By 2019-20, the EL population had grown to more than 5.1 million students, or 10.4 percent of the total student population. From the 2009–10 school year to the 2014–15 school year, the percentage of ELs increased in more than half the states, with increases of more than 40 percent in five states.

Despite the increase of ELs in U.S. public schools, federal funding has not increased to keep pace with students’ needs. Without adequate funding, school districts still struggle to provide resources for ELs to ensure that they can fully engage in education programs in a meaningful way.

In response to the ongoing barriers that ELs and their families experience, the civil rights community came together and published the Civil Rights Principles for Multilingual Learner Education. The principles describe how decision-makers at all levels can ensure an equitable education system that offers meaningful equal opportunity and success for all children, including children whose first language is a language other than English.

The principles state:

  • PRINCIPLE #1: Fully include English learner students in all aspects of education and protect students and their families from discrimination.
  • PRINCIPLE #2: Involve parents and respect their expertise.
  • PRINCIPLE #3: Provide culturally responsive and developmentally appropriate care and instruction to young children who are learning more than one language.
  • PRINCIPLE #4: Provide teachers with high-quality preparation and support so that all teachers can meet the needs of English learners.
  • PRINCIPLE #5: Provide schools with sufficient funding to effectively meet the educational needs of English learners.
  • PRINCIPLE #6: Support students’ acquisition of English language proficiency.
  • PRINCIPLE #7: Collect and report disaggregated data to ensure accountability for equal opportunity.
  • PRINCIPLE #8: Support students’ meaningful access to content area knowledge while they are acquiring English language proficiency, including by ensuring that enriched and advanced educational opportunities are equitably available to English learners.
  • PRINCIPLE #9: Reject English-only requirements, provide instructional opportunities in multiple languages, and avoid instructional approaches that do not support students’ home languages and cultures as they work toward English proficiency.
  • PRINCIPLE #10: Ensure access to post-secondary pathways, including degree programs and workforce training, that do not create a two-tiered system for English learners.

The Civil Rights Principles for Multilingual Learner Education are available in Arabic, Chinese, English, Hindi, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese here.

Shekinah Hall is the senior associate of the education equity program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.