The Lau v. Nichols case was one of the most significant legal events in the history of bilingual education, which was brought to deal with discrimination of non-English speaking students in the U.S. schools. The case ruled that denial of meaningful language instruction to the students who do not speak English is a violation of the Civil Rights and the Constitution.
In the 1970s, many of the students speaking little or no English were recent immigrants living in San Francisco, but there were also U.S.-born children who attended racially segregated schools offering no bilingual education.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, federally-funded San Francisco educational system failed to provide 1,800 non-English-speaking students of Chinese background with supplementary English courses.
Therefore, the school system denied the students an opportunity to actively participate in the program of public education and thus, violated section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based “on the ground of race, color, or national origin” in educational programs receiving federal financial support.
Human Rights Commission of San Francisco confirmed that as of April 1973, there were a total of 3,457 Chinese students in the local school system speaking little or no English, while 1,707 students of Chinese ancestry were not receiving special English instruction they needed.
The students’ claims, however, were rejected at first by a federal district court judge and then by the judges of a panel of appeals, who showed no sympathy to the requests. In the opinion to Lau v. Nichols case, the court stated that the discrimination was not the result of laws of the state of California, but in fact, the consequence of the failure of children to learn the language by themselves.
The court also mentioned the section 71 California Education Code, stating that “English shall be the basic language of instruction in all schools.” That section allowed a school district to define when the instruction should or should not be given bilingually and also indicated that it is the policy of the state to ensure the mastery of English by all students of the schools.
Moreover, in order to receive a diploma of graduation, a student had to meet the standards of English proficiency. Bilingual instruction was only authorized if it did not interfere with the regular and systematic instruction of the English language. Overall, the state-imposed standards did not ensure equal treatment of all students, as those who did not understand or speak English could not get any meaningful education and, therefore, could not successfully graduate from schools in California.
In January 1974, the United States Supreme Court came to a unanimous decision and ruled that the San Francisco school system failed to provide adequate instruction of English to the students of Chinese ancestry and agreed on the violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Supreme Court admitted that the Chinese-speaking minority did not receive the same educational benefits as their English-speaking peers and that the action had to be taken to stop discrimination banned by the federal regulations. The Court instructed the San Francisco school district to take measures to rectify the English language deficiency and open instructional language courses to all non-English-speaking students.
The school district agreed to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to administer to the language needs of minority group children. All in all, the outcome of the Lau v. Nichols case became a prominent step in the development of bilingual education and the establishment of justice for minorities in the U.S.