At issue before the U.S. Supreme Court in Lau v. Nichols was whether a school system is required to provide a program to address the language problems of non-English-speaking students. In this civil rights class action suit, the Court ruled that school districts receiving federal funds must act to correct students’ linguistic deficits to ensure they receive an equal education. The decision, based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, failed to specify what kinds of remedies were required. This entry describes the case, the decision, and its impact on education.
Kinney Kinmon Lau and other non-English-speaking Chinese students sought to compel the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to provide all non-English-speaking Chinese students with bilingual compensatory education in the English language. The non-English-speaking Chinese students claimed that the SFUSD violated their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause, Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the California Constitution, and provisions of the California Education Code.
According to the Equal Protection Clause, states are prohibited from denying any person equal protection of the laws. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the Supreme Court relied on the Equal Protection Clause in reasoning that “separate but equal” educational facilities were unconstitutional. In the Lau case, a federal trial court determined that the SFUSD satisfied students’ rights to an education and to equal educational opportunities; it denied relief to the non-English-speaking Chinese students. Interpreting Brown as mandating the provision of education on equal terms, the trial court concluded that the board did not violate the Equal Protection Clause, because officials provided the students with equal educational opportunities when they received the same education that was available to all other students in the SFUSD.
In 1973, the Ninth Circuit affirmed that the SFUSD did not violate either the equal protection rights of non-English-speaking Chinese students or Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Ninth Circuit court focused extensively on distinguishing the facts and decision in Lau from those in Brown. Insofar as the SFUSD had not directly or indirectly caused the language deficiencies, the Ninth Circuit found that the requisite discriminatory state action was absent. The Ninth Circuit explained that there were neither constitutional nor statutory mandates requiring the SFUSD to provide special remedial programs to students who were disadvantaged.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari because of the public importance of the issue in Lau v. Nichols. The Court decided that since the students could not read or speak English proficiently, the SFUSD had denied them their right to equal educational opportunities as required by Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Consistent with the Court’s approach of seeking to avoid constitutional grounds in reviewing disputes, Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act was the sole basis on which it resolved Lau. According to Section 601, individuals may not be discriminated against based on race, color, or national origin in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
The Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) clarified this section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 based on its duty to promulgate regulations prohibiting discrimination in school systems that receive federal financial assistance. In 1968, HEW issued a guideline directing school systems to provide students of a particular race, color, or national origin with an opportunity to obtain the same education that was available to all students. In 1970, HEW issued a second guideline, which specifically imposed upon federally funded school systems the responsibility of rectifying students’ linguistic deficiencies to make instruction accessible for these students. These two guidelines attempted to clarify the responsibility of school systems to educate students in a nondiscriminatory fashion as required under Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act. In Lau, the Court pointed out both that HEW had authority to regulate the Civil Rights Act and that school boards were contractually obligated to comply as a condition of receiving federal funds.
Lau influenced state and federal policies that impacted the development of bilingual education programs in many school districts. For example, soon after Lau, Congress enacted the Equal Educational Opportunity Act (EEOA) of 1974 and the Bilingual Education Act of 1974. Thus, Lau signifies a fundamental turning point that reaffirmed the rights of non-English-speaking students to be free from discriminatory practices in educational programs and services.
Although Lau had a significant impact on the education of non-English-speaking students, the Court failed to adopt specific remedies to redress the school board’s discriminatory practices. As a result, the Court did not deliver a clear mandate to the SFUSD or to other school systems regarding the provision of specific programs or services that would satisfy the obligation to educate non-English-speaking students in a nondiscriminatory fashion pursuant to Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Consequently, policy debates to determine appropriate programs for non- English-speaking students have been and will continue to be waged in school systems, state legislatures, and Congress.
Susan C. Bon