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Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Lau v. Nichols

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division Continues to Enforce the Rights of English Learners in the Nation’s Public Schools

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Lau v. Nichols, affirming the right of English Learners to participate meaningfully in the educational programs offered in public schools. This decision helped usher in a mandate requiring public schools to take affirmative steps towards meeting the language needs of their students. The Educational Opportunities Section of the Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department has worked for decades to enforce this mandate and ensure that the rights of English Learners are fully protected, as discussed further here. The section has undertaken dozens of enforcement actions, summarized here, to address deficiencies in school programs for English Learners, and has published numerous resources, available here, for students, their families and their schools to clarify the requirements of Lau and federal law.

When the Court considered Lau, there were over 1,800 students of Chinese descent enrolled in the San Francisco Unified School District who did not speak English, and who were not receiving any instruction to help them learn English. Noting the school district’s failure to teach these students the foundational skills necessary to access their school’s educational program, taught entirely in English, the Court decided that the district had made “a mockery of public education.” Additionally, the Court stated that “there is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum.” Students who did not speak English were “certain to find their classroom experiences wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful.” Ultimately, the Court concluded, this denial of a meaningful opportunity to participate in the educational program amounted to discrimination in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its implementing regulations. The decision in Lau, along with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA), which Congress enacted seven months later, established a directive to the nation’s public schools to ensure that their English Learners could meaningfully participate in their programs.

Indeed, the courage and triumph of the Chinese-speaking students in Lau has directly led to greater educational opportunities for millions of students speaking a wide range of languages all across the United States. By 2020 public schools nationwide enrolled approximately 5 million English Learners, or about one in every 10 public school students. These included millions of Spanish speakers, hundreds of thousands of Arabic and Chinese speakers, and tens of thousands of speakers of Vietnamese, Portuguese, Russian, Haitian Creole, Hmong, Urdu, Korean, French, Swahili, Somali and Tagalog. Remarkably, the Department of Education estimated that over 98% of these English Learners participated in an English Learner program during the 2020-21 school year. The widespread adoption of these programs is a testament to the significance of Lau.

Of course, the mere existence of an English Learner program does not guarantee that the needs of these students are being met. For the last 50 years, the section has diligently worked to enforce Lau’s mandate. The section has initiated investigations of schools across the country, and entered settlements designed to address deficiencies in programs of language instruction and assistance offered to English Learners. These enforcement actions have identified and addressed numerous issues, including:

  • Identification and Placement: Failures to identify English Learners during enrollment and registration, to evaluate the language needs of English Learners and to place students in appropriate classrooms.
  • Language Services: Failures to ensure English Learners receive English language instruction, adequate curriculum and instruction from staff that are properly qualified and trained to provide such instruction.
  • Monitoring and Accountability: Failures to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of English Learner programs.
  • Access to Specialized Programs: Failures to provide English Learners equal access to gifted and advanced programs.
  • Special Education: Failures to identify and provide services to address the disabilities of English Learners.
  • Language Access for Parents/Guardians: Failures to provide language assistance to limited English proficient parents/guardians and families to ensure that they can meaningfully participate in their child’s education.

Over the last few years, the section has successfully extended access to education for tens of thousands of English Learners from dozens of language backgrounds in settlements with school districts in Arizona, California, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina and South Carolina. Summaries of the section’s investigations and settlements are available here.

In addition to the extensive enforcement work of the section, the Civil Rights Division has also published many resources, often in partnership with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, to clarify the requirements of federal law for English Learners and their families, as well as school officials. These include Dear Colleague Letters, Fact Sheets, webinars and other resources, available here. Lau and the EEOA sparked tremendous progress in meeting the needs of the nation’s English Learners. Even so, work remains to be done. To that end, the section will continue its commitment to fulfilling the promise of Lau: the promise that every student has meaningful access to a quality education.

Updated February 5, 2024

Civil Rights