California Educator

November 2014

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Advocacy Lau v. Nichols T H E L A N D M A R K U.S. Supreme Court decision Lau v. Nichols (1974), sometimes known as Beyond Brown, is regarded by civil rights activists as the single most important case ensuring language rights in U.S. classrooms. Brown v. Board of Ed- ucation (1954) guaranteed the right to an inte- grated school system, but did not discuss what instruction children received once they were inside the classroom. In 1971, there were approximately 2,800 non- English-speaking children of Chinese ancestry in the San Francisco School District, and 1,000 of them were receiving supplemental English language services. A class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the 1,800 who were not receiving additional instruction, on the grounds that they were denied equal access to instruction in viola- tion of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and that they were being discriminated against because of their national origin, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The District Court denied relief, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. That the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case was due to the public importance of the issue. The lawsuit expanded on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin in any program or activity that receives federal financial assistance. The unanimous decision of the Supreme Court was that the district's treatment of these 1,800 students violated the Civil Rights Act's prohibition against national origin discrimination: "There is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any mean- ingful education. Basic English skills are at the very core of what these 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. We know that those who do not understand English are certain to find their classroom experi- ences wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful." Lau does not specify how exactly school districts must serve the needs of English learners. But school districts in California, as well as in other states, have been required to ensure that all students can meaningfully access the curriculum. Bilingual education advocates have relied heavily on research that indicates student learning in a pri- mary language is highly more likely to lead to academic success than learning academic concepts in a second language. So what has become of the Lau decision in the 40 years since it became law? Are English learners more likely to find that guar- anteed access? Patri- cia Gándara, co-direc- tor of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, said at the U.S. Department of Education's annual summit on English learners in 2007 that although the Lau case recognizes the rights of English learners, "it is up to educators to ensure that schools put the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling into prac- tice." A second panelist at the summit was Edward Steinman, a civil rights attorney who had argued for the plaintiffs at the Su- preme Court. "The Lau case has been around forever, but court rul- ings are just a piece of paper," he said. "They're not self-executing." Just this year, the American Civil Liberties Union found that a significant number of English learners are not being equitably served. Many school districts like San Francisco and Los Angeles have excellent English Learner Master Plans. But, as Gándara and Steinman noted, good laws need good implementation. The potential large-scale ramifications of Lau were, and are, huge pertaining to every language minority, not just the Chinese students in San Francisco. Yet many English learners are still precluded from the promise of equal access. It is hoped that with the passage of state Sen. Ricardo Lara's California Multilingual Education Act, to be on the ballot in 2016, the promise of access and equity for all will be realized. In September 2014, a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniver- sary of Lau v. Nichols was held on the Chinatown campus of the City College of San Francisco, home of the 1,800 students in the case. Presenters were Dr. Ling-chi Wang of UC Berkeley, Stanley Pottinger, former U.S. assistant attorney general in 1974, and Edward Steinman of Santa Clara Law School, who successfully argued the case before the Supreme Court. Th e c l a s s o f K e n n y L a u , o n e o f t h e s t u d e n t s n a m e d i n t h e l a w s u i t . Source: Historical Photograph Collection of San Francisco Public Library's San Francisco History Center Cheryl Ortega 40th anniversary of equal access for language minorities By Cheryl Ortega Director of Bilingual Education, U TLA Legal 41 V O L U M E 1 9 I S S U E 4

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