Lau vs. Nichols: English Language Learners

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There are three federal court cases that provide the legal foundation for providing equal educational opportunity to students with limited English Proficiency, Lau vs. Nichols 1973, Castaneda vs. Pickard 1981 and Plyler vs. Doe 1982 (The English Language Learners Knowledge Base, 2004).

This research paper will focus on Lau vs. Nichols, a major ruling by the Supreme Court in reference to Title VI of the Civil rights act of 1964. In this research paper I will give the history, outcome and discuss the implications that have affected ELL classroom / learners of the future. This cases main point was that when children arrive in school with little or no English-speaking ability, "sink or swim" instruction is a violation of their civil rights.

In 1974 The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Lau vs. Nichols case set major precedent regarding the educational rights of language minorities, although this fact is grounded in statute (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), rather than in the U.S. Constitution. At issue was whether school administrators may meet their obligation to provide equal educational opportunities merely by treating all students the same, or whether they must offer special help for students unable to understand English. Lower federal courts had absolved the San Francisco school district of any responsibility for minority children's "language deficiency." But a unanimous Supreme Court disagreed. Its ruling opened a new era in federal civil rights enforcement under the so-called "Lau Remedies." The decision was delivered by Justice William O. Douglas on January 21, 1974 (Find Law, 2006).

History

The following are inserts from the case. This class suit brought by non-English-speaking Chinese students against officials responsible for the operation of the San Francisco Unified School District sought relief against the unequal educational opportunities which were alleged to violate, inter alia, the Fourteenth Amendment. No specific remedy was urged upon us. Teaching English to the students of Chinese ancestry who do not speak the language is one choice. Giving instructions to this group in Chinese is another. There may be others. Petitioner asks only that the Board of Education be directed to apply its expertise to the problem and rectify the situation. ...

The Court of Appeals reasoned that "every student brings to the starting line of his educational career different advantages and disadvantages caused in part by social, economic and cultural background, created and continued completely apart from any contribution by the school system"; 83 F.2d 497. Yet in our view the case may not be so easily decided. This is a public school system of California and § 71 of the California Education Code states that "English shall be the basic language of instruction in all schools." That section permits a school district to determine "when and under what circumstances instruction may be given bilingually." That section also states as "the policy of the state" to ensure "the mastery of English by all pupils in the schools." And bilingual instruction is authorized "to the extent that it does not interfere with the systematic, sequential, and regular instruction of all pupils in the English language."

Moreover, sect. 8573 of the Education Code provides that no pupil shall receive a diploma of graduation from grade 12 who has not met the standards of proficiency in "English," as well as other prescribed subjects. Moreover, by sect. 12101 of the Education Code (Supp. 1973) children between the ages of six and 16 years are (with exceptions not material here) "subject to compulsory full-time education."

Under these state-imposed standards 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. Basic English skills are at the very core of what these...
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