Ensuring Equal Educational Opportunities for English Learner Students

July 1, 2015

Courtesy of Vanita Gupta, Head of the Civil Rights Division

Forty-one years ago, the Supreme Court recognized in Lau v. Nichols that:“Basic English skills are at the very core of what  public schools teach.  Imposition of a requirement that, before a child can effectively participate in the educational program, he must already have acquired those basic skills is to make a mockery of public education.”  That recognition informed the court’s landmark holding that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), and its implementing regulations and guidance, require schools that receive federal financial assistance to take affirmative steps to ensure that English learner (EL) students can meaningfully participate in their educational programs.  Consistent with Lau’s holding, Congress enacted the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA), requiring both local and state educational agencies to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by EL students in instructional programs. 

In the years since the Supreme Court decided Lau and Congress enacted the EEOA, many school districts and states across the country have made significant strides in providing necessary services and supports to EL students and to Limited English Proficient (LEP) families.  And the Department of Justice has promoted state and district compliance with these laws through investigations and enforcement actions.  Just this week, the department secured significant relief for the more than 16,000 EL students in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) when the court approved the modified consent decree (MCD) jointly filed by all parties in the historic Lau case.  The MCD aims to address compliance problems identified by the department and the private plaintiffs through their active monitoring of SFUSD’s implementation of a 2008 court order.

This ground-breaking MCD requires SFUSD to implement comprehensive measures to ensure that all EL students in its 105 regular education schools and five court and county (i.e., serving detained and incarcerated students) schools have equal educational opportunities, and that Limited English Proficient (LEP) families can participate meaningfully in the education of their children.  The MCD requires SFUSD to:

  • promptly identify, assess and place EL students in effective EL programs;

  • offer a range of EL programs and services to meet the needs of all EL students, including newcomers, students with disabilities and long-term EL students;

  • expand translation and interpreter services for LEP families;

  • adequately train employees who serve EL students so that they can fulfill their roles; and

  • conduct robust monitoring.

The MCD also protects the educational rights of the district’s most at-risk and vulnerable EL students who are learning in alternative education or juvenile justice settings.

The court’s approval of this significant consent decree furthers the promise of Lau: that all students, no matter their language background, have access to a high-quality education.  The department looks forward to working with SFUSD, its students, the private plaintiffs, and the community to implement the MCD to ensure that EL students and LEP families are welcomed and supported in all aspects of their educational experiences. 

Updated July 1, 2015