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Bilingual Education Cases and Laws

In the U.S., the journey towards equal access to public education has seen many twists and turns. English language learners (ELLs) are students who are limited English proficient (LEP). For ELLs, this journey has had its own unique challenges and milestones.

Some argue bilingual education represents a commitment to inclusive learning and cultural respect. As immigration patterns changed, the languages spoken within American borders have expanded. At the same time, so did the need for more comprehensive bilingual programs.

This article provides an overview of bilingual education laws and cases in America.

Setting the Stage

In the earlier years, many high school students faced segregation based on race. African Americans, for instance, fought for desegregation in the school system. This battle was not just about race. It was also about ensuring everyone had the same opportunities in public education. State and federal laws guide school boards. They began to look more closely at how they served their diverse student populations. Many students in these groups spoke English as their second language.

Bilingual education in the United States was pushed into the spotlight. This was a direct result of the 1959 revolution in Cuba. Fidel Castro overthrew the dictatorship and established a Communist government. Many middle- and upper-class Cubans fled to the United States. A large number of these refugees settled in Florida. These individuals were well-educated but had little resources. Federal and state governments assisted these individuals generously.

Among this aid was ESL instruction. This was provided by the Dade County (Florida) Public Schools. In addition, the school district launched a "Spanish for Spanish Speakers" program. In 1963, a bilingual education program was introduced in Miami. Both U.S. and Cuban school officials directed the program. Program enrollment began in the first through third grades.

U.S. and Cuban students received a half day of English and a half day of Spanish instruction. At lunchtime and recess and during music and art classes, the groups were mixed together. Within three years, the district was able to report benefits for both groups of students. These students were not only bilingual but also bicultural. This was no accident: the goal of the Coral Way initiative was to promote exactly this level of fluency.

Bilingualism Legislation and Cases: The Civil Rights Act (1964)

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark piece of legislation. This ushered in transformative changes in the realm of educational rights. This act compelled the boards of education to ensure equal education opportunities for all students. Its later amendments reinforced this commitment. The act primarily tackled racial segregation, but it also laid the groundwork for future state law modifications and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not address bilingual education directly, but it opened an important door. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act specifically prohibits discrimination. Discrimination is unacceptable on the basis of race, color, or national origin. This is true in any programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. School districts that receive federal aid are required to ensure equal access for minority students. This ensures these students get the same access to programs as non-minority students.

This minority group consists of language minority (LM) students. These are students who live in homes where people speak a language other than English. Some LM students speak English fluently, but they may still be classified as LEP. The Lau v. Nichols case, a decade later, clarified Title VI's crucial role in bilingualism. This article provides more information about this case below.

The focus on equal rights greatly influenced public school districts. It urged them to revise their approach to education. As a result, school administrators began to reassess and refine school programs to be more inclusive. With each passing school year, the impact of the Civil Rights Act became more evident. It has been indispensable in the evolution of U.S. education law.

There was an influx of immigrants in America and a realization that not all students spoke English as their first language. There arose a need for bilingual education. This meant offering language instruction in the student's native language and English. States like New Jersey and New York encountered cases brought by families. These families argued their children lacked equal educational opportunities without bilingual education. So, federal courts needed to step in to intervene.

Bilingual Education Act (1968)

Federal funding began influencing local educational agencies' approach to bilingualism. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was another important step in bilingual education. Specifically, Title VII of that act set the federal policy for bilingual education. This section was known as the Bilingual Education Act. This ensured that school districts received funds for bilingual programs.

This act recognized "the special education needs of the large numbers of children" of LEP. It declared that the federal government would offer financial support. This support could pay for innovative bilingual programs. This funding would cover program development, implementation, staffing, staff training, and long-term program maintenance.

Title VII has been amended several times since its establishment. It was reauthorized in 1994 as part of the Improving America's Schools Act. The basic goal has remained the same. It strives to give access to bilingual programs for children of limited means.

Lau v. Nichols

One of the most important legal events for bilingualism legislation and cases in education was the Lau v. Nichols case. This case was brought against the San Francisco Unified School District by the parents of nearly 1,800 Chinese students. It began as a discrimination case in 1970. A poverty lawyer decided to represent a Chinese student who was failing in school. He could not understand the lessons and was given no special help.

The school district countered that its policies were not discriminatory. They said this was because it offered the same instruction to all students. The school argued the treatment was the same, regardless of national origin. The lack of English proficiency was not the district's fault.

The lower courts ruled in favor of the San Francisco schools. But in 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the students who complained. Justice William O. Douglas explained that giving all students the same books and teachers isn't fair. Students who don't speak English can't effectively learn that way. The court cited Title IV of the Civil Rights Act. It noted that the students in question fall into a protected category under this act.

However, this case didn't set a specific rule about teaching in two languages. Each school district had to figure out how to give all students an equal chance to learn. The federal court said schools must help students who don't speak English fluently. The U.S. Department of Education was responsible for overseeing this. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) took measures to uphold this across the country

Special Education and Inclusion

Bilingual education began gaining momentum. At the time, another significant movement was happening. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act made sure that students who needed special education services got them. Every student with special needs had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to ensure they got the support they needed. Students can receive IEPs in traditional public schools. They can also receive them in charter schools or other educational settings.

Special education and bilingualism often intersect in the educational journey of many students. For learners who are both limited English proficient and have identified disabilities, their IEP may incorporate language support alongside other special education services. This ensures that these students receive tailored instruction that addresses both their linguistic needs and their unique learning challenges.

Beyond the Classroom

Equal access wasn't just about classroom learning. English language learners, like all students, wanted to participate in extracurricular activities and school activities. Thanks to federal laws and school policies, these students also were protected in their right to join activities irrespective of their sexual orientation, language skills, or other factors.

The journey didn't stop at elementary schools and secondary schools. As these students moved on to higher education, the same principles of equal access and support carried forward. Universities and colleges started offering more professional development for their educators. This helped ensure that every student, without regard to whether their primary language was Spanish, French, German, Arabic, etc., had the chance to succeed.

Getting Legal Help With Bilingual Education

Over the years, many families have turned to legal avenues to ensure that their rights are upheld. Whether it's fighting against segregation, advocating for bilingual education, or ensuring fair treatment regardless of sexual orientation, the U.S. Constitution guarantees certain rights to students. When families believe these student rights are infringed upon, seeking legal assistance is vital.

Lawyers can help guide you through the process. They can help explain state law and federal law to you. They can also help with any court orders. Finally, they can represent you in court should your case progress to trial. Speaking to a lawyer about your legal issue can be critical to solving your problem.

Talk to an education attorney in your area about your case today.

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