Landmark Court Rulings Regarding English Language Learners

In this excerpt from Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice (Caslon, 2010), Wayne Wright summarizes the landmark U.S. court cases that have had significant implications for ELLs. In particular, Wright focuses on cases relating to segregation, the right of communities to teach their native languages to children, and the linguistic and education needs of ELLs.

Wright also provides an overview of the No Child Left Behind legislation in No Child Left Behind and ELLs.

Note: For information about Plyler vs. Doe, which gives all children a right to a free, public education regardless of immigration status, see this related resource section.

Important Court Decisions and Legislation

Historical reluctance by many states throughout the country to provide equitable educational opportunities to ELL and other minority students and controversies over the use of languages other than English in public schools have sparked a large number of lawsuits that address these issues. The court decisions that grew out of these lawsuits have led to legislative changes that have helped to shape the policy climate of today. In this section we briefly review some of these cases and related legislation.

First, however, we must consider the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment, ratified in 1868 after the Civil War, declares in part: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Many of the cases discussed in this section are based on the due process and the equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Addressing Segregation

Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education

In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its now infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that "separate but equal" public facilities, including school systems, are constitutional. Although the decision was related to the segregation of African American students, in many parts of the country Native American, Asian, and Hispanic students were also routinely segregated. The Supreme Court unanimously reversed Plessy v. Ferguson 58 years later in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education.

Independent School District v. Salvatierra, Alvarez v. Lemon Grove, and Méndez v. Westminster School District

A few lesser known lower-level cases concerning the segregation of Hispanic student predate Brown. In Independent School District v. Salvatierra (1930), Mexican American parents in the small border town of Rio, Texas, brought suit against the school district over segregation. The court sided with the school district that argued the segregation was necessary to teach the students English. This argument did not hold, however, for two similar cases in California: Alvarez v. Lemon Grove (1931) and Méndez v. Westminster School District (1947). The judge in Alvarez noted that segregation was not beneficial for the students' English language development (Trujillo, 2008), and the success of the Méndez case helped set the stage for Brown.

Like Plessy, Brown v. Board of Education focused on the segregation of African American students. But by ruling that states are responsible for providing "equal educational opportunities" for all students, Brown made bilingual education for ELLs more feasible.

Guey Heung Lee v. Johnson and Johnson v. San Francisco Unified School District

In some instances, however, desegregation efforts made it more difficult. In San Francisco, for example, Chinese Americans fought a desegregation order that would force students out of neighborhood schools that provided bilingual English-Chinese programs for newcomer Chinese ELL students. The Chinese community took the case to court in 1971 in Guey Heung Lee v. Johnson, and it was appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Johnson v. San Francisco Unified School District. In 1974, the court ruled against the Chinese community, declaring simply Brown applies to races.

Despite significant progress in the half century since Brown, the practice of segregation in public schools remains widespread (Kozol, 2005). School districts that provide bilingual education and ESL programs constantly struggle to balance the need for separate classes where the unique needs of ELL students can be addressed against the need to avoid prolonged segregation of ELLs from other students.

The Right of Communities to Teach Their Native Languages to Their Children

Meyers v. Nebraska

Three important cases have addressed the issue of private language-schooling for language-minority students. In the early 1900s, German communities typically ran their own private schools where students received instruction in both German and English. Then, in 1919, Nebraska passed the Siman Act, which made it illegal for any school, public or private, to provide any foreign language instruction to students below the 8th grade. Roman Catholic and Lutheran German parochial schools joined together to file suit against the act under the 14th Amendment.

The state court ruled that the act could not prevent schools from providing German language instruction outside of the hours of regular school study. In response, the parochial schools taught German during an extended recess period. Language restrictionist policymakers sought to close the loopholes in the law and fined Robert Meyers $25 fine for teaching Bible stories to 10-year-old children in German. The case, Meyers v. Nebraska (1923), went to Supreme Court, which consolidated this case with similar cases from Ohio and Idaho.

In a major victory for language-minority parents and communities, the Supreme Court struck down the states' restrictive legislation, ruling, in essence, that whereas state governments can legislate the language used for instruction in schools, states may not pass laws that attempt to prevent communities from offering private language classes outside of the regular school system.

Meyers is an important case because it makes clear that the 14th Amendment provides protection for language minorities. As the legal expert Sandra Del Valle (2003) points out, however, this decision did not give language minorities additional rights and privileges but simply ensured that "laws not be used as a rationale for denying them the same rights accorded others" (p. 39). Furthermore, because the focus of this case was on parochial schools, the decision was not an endorsement of bilingual education.

Farrington v. Tokushige

In a similar case handed down in Hawaii in 1927, Farrington v. Tokushige, the court offered further protections of after-school community language programs after attempts by education authorities to put restrictions on Japanese and Chinese heritage language programs.

In a similar case handed down in Hawaii in 1927, Farrington v. Tokushige, the court offered further protections of after-school community language programs after attempts by education authorities to put restrictions on Japanese and Chinese heritage language programs.

Despite these victories, as Del Valle observes, these cases were essentially about parents' rights rather than language rights. In addition, within the court's decision there were still signs of negative attitudes toward the "foreign population." Indeed, Hawaii tried yet again to limit private foreign language instruction. When the Chinese communities after World War II sought to restart their private language schools, the state passed the "Act Regulating the Teaching of Foreign Languages to Children." Part of the state's rationale was the need to "protect children from the harm of learning a foreign language" (Del Valle, 2003, p. 44).

Stainback v. Mo Hock Ke Kok Po

In Stainback v. Mo Hock Ke Kok Po (1947), the state court struck down the statute, rejecting the state's claim and arguing that, at least for "the brightest" students, study of a foreign language can be beneficial. The case was decided on the basis of Farrington and, once again, had more to do with parents' rights in directing the education of their children than with language rights.

Xenophobia toward German and Japanese Americans during World War I and World War II succeeded where attempts at language restrictive legislation failed. When Germany and later Japan became war enemies of the United States, the number of U.S. schools that provided instruction in these languages dropped dramatically, largely because of fears by members of these communities that such instruction would lead others to question their loyalty to the United States (Tamura, 1993; Wiley, 1998).

Nevertheless, the legacy of these cases, despite agreement in the courts about the need for states to Americanize minorities and their right to control the language used for instruction in public schools, is that minority communities have a clear right to offer private language classes in which their children can learn and maintain their home languages. Thus, the common practice of language-minority communities today in offering heritage language programs after school and on weekends is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

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Addressing the Linguistic and Educational Needs of ELL Students

Case law concerning the linguistic and educational needs of ELL students has had a major impact on federal and state policy for ELL students, their families, and their communities. Since the early 1970s, conflict and controversy have surrounded the issue of what constitutes an appropriate education for ELLs. Some rulings provide support for bilingual education; others erode that support. Some cases involve suits filed against bilingual education; others involve suits filed against anti-bilingual education voter initiatives.

Equal Educational Opportunities for ELLs

Lau v. Nichols

The 1974 Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichols resulted in perhaps the most important court decision regarding the education of language-minority students. This case was brought forward by Chinese American students in the San Francisco Unified School District who were placed in mainstream classrooms despite their lack of proficiency in English, and left to "sink or swim." The district had argued that it had done nothing wrong, and that the Chinese American students received treatment equal to that of other students. Justice William Douglass, in writing the court's opinion, strongly disagreed, arguing:

Under these state-imposed standards 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 meaningful education…. We know that those who do not understand English are certain to find their classroom experiences wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful.

The influence of Lau on federal policy was substantial. After the court's decision, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights created the Lau Remedies. Whereas Title VII Bilingual Education Act regulations applied only to funded programs, the Lau Remedies applied to all school districts and functioned as de facto compliance standards.

The Office of Civil Rights used the Lau decision to go after districts that, like San Francisco, were essentially ignoring the needs of its LEP students. Even though the court decision does not mandate any particular instructional approach, the Lau Remedies essentially require districts to implement bilingual education programs for LEP students. James Lyons (1995), former president of the National Association for Bilingual Education, explains further:

The Lau Remedies specified proper approaches, methods and procedures for (1) identifying and evaluating national-origin-minority students' English-language skills; (2) determining appropriate instructional treatments; (3) deciding when LEP students were ready for mainstream classes; and (4) determining the professional standards to be met by teachers of language-minority children. Under the Lau Remedies, elementary schools were generally required to provide LEP students special English-as-a-second-language instruction as well as academic subject-matter instruction through the students' strongest language until the student achieved proficiency in English sufficient to learn effectively in a monolingual English classroom. (pp. 4-5)

The essence of Lau was codified into federal law though the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA), soon after the case was decided. Section 1703(f) of this act declares: "No state shall deny educational opportunities to an individual on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin by … (f) the failure of an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs."

At the time of its passage, this section of the EEOA was viewed as a declaration of the legal right for students to receive a bilingual education, under the assumption that this is what Lau essentially mandated (Del Valle, 2003). Although other legal actions have since made it clear that the Supreme Court never did mandate bilingual education, the EEOA remains in effect and several subsequent lawsuits have been based on this important legislation.

Rulings that Support Bilingual Education

United States v. Texas

United States v. Texas (1971, 1981) includes mandates that affect all Texas schools. The court ordered the district to create a plan and implement language programs that would help Mexican American students learn English and adjust to American culture and also help Anglo students learn Spanish. The court relied heavily on the testimony of José Cardenas and his theory of incompatibilities, which blames the educational failure of students on the inadequacies of school programs rather than on students themselves. (For a complete discussion of the theory, see Cardenas & Cardenas, 1977.)

Serna v. Portales

Serna v. Portales (1974) was the first case to raise the issue of bilingual education outside of the context of desegregation (Del Valle, 2003). The case dealt with a White-majority school in New Mexico that failed to meet the unique needs of "Spanish-surnamed students." It was argued under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of "race, color, or national origin" in any program that receives federal funding. The court found the school's program for these students to be inadequate. The judge declared, "It is incumbent on the school district to reassess and enlarge its program directed to the specialized needs of the Spanish-surnamed students" and to create bilingual programs at other schools where they are needed. This case was first decided in 1972. Later it was appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and decided in 1974 just six months after Lau. Like Lau, it makes clear that schools cannot ignore the unique language and educational needs of ELL students.

Aspira v. New York

Legal action taken by Puerto Rican parents and children in New York in Aspira v. New York (1975) resulted in the Aspira Consent Decree, which mandates transitional bilingual programs for Spanish-surnamed students found to be more proficient in Spanish than English. The Aspira Consent Decree is still in effect and has been a model for school districts across the country, though it is frequently under attack by opponents of bilingual education.

Rios v. Reed

Bilingual education in New York received a further boost a few years later in Rios v. Reed (1978). The case was argued under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the EEOA. Puerto Rican parents brought suit claiming that many so-called bilingual education programs were not bilingual but based mainly on ESL. The federal court found the district's bilingual programs to be woefully inadequate, pointing to the lack of trained bilingual teachers and the absence of a clearly defined curriculum, clear entrance and exit criteria, and firm guidelines about how much instruction should be in the native language of the students. Although the court issued no specific remedies, the federal Office of Civil Rights came in to ensure that the district made improvements. This case is significant because it made a strong case for offering bilingual education and for doing it right.

Rulings That Erode Support for Bilingual Education

San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez

Another Texas case, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973), although not directly related to bilingual education, had some serious implications for it. It dealt with inequalities in school funding, with the plaintiff charging that predominantly minority schools received less funding than schools that served predominantly White students. The case was argued under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there is no fundamental right to an education guaranteed by the Constitution. Indeed, if there is no constitutional right to an education under the 14th Amendment, as Del Valle (2003) points out, "there is clearly no constitutional right to a bilingual education" (p. 234, emphasis in original).

Flores v. Arizona and Williams v. California

Because of this case, all subsequent cases over inadequacies in school funding have had to be argued under state constitutions. Some of these cases, such as Flores v. Arizona (2000) and Williams v. California (settled in 2004), include or specifically address inadequacies related to the education of ELL students. But despite court orders in Flores to increase funding for ELL students, state legislators and educational leaders have used a wide variety of stall tactics and legal maneuvering to avoid fully complying with the court's order.

In 2009 the Arizona legislature and the state superintendent of public instruction appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court essentially agreed with the state leaders that the situation in Arizona for ELLs had changed substantially since the original lower court ruling, and thus the lower courts must take these changes into consideration. Although the ruling was disappointing to the plaintiffs, it nonetheless keeps the legal battle alive, with the attorney and advocates in the state gathering new evidence of the harm caused by recent state policies and the underfunding of ELLs' education. This case demonstrates that even when courts issue decisions with specific mandates, changes do not happen immediately and are often resisted by political figures who disagree with the decision.

Otero v. Mesa County Valley School District

In the 1980s, in the wake of Lau, support for bilingual education was eroded by the courts. For example, a case in Colorado, Otero v. Mesa County Valley School District (1980), failed in the plaintiffs' attempt to obtain a court order for bilingual education. The plaintiffs wanted a plan for its Mexican American students like the one based on the testimony of Cardenas that was recommended by the court in United States v. Texas (1971) even though they made up a small number of students in the district, and less than 3% could even speak or understand Spanish. As in United States v. Texas, the court's decision made it clear that despite Lau, there is no constitutional right to bilingual or bicultural education (Del Valle, 2003).

Keyes v. School District No. 1

In another Colorado case, Keyes v. School District No. 1 (1983), the court also rejected a Cardenas-like plan on the basis that Lau did not mandate bilingual education and that according to the decision in Rodriguez there is no constitutional right to education. The bilingual education component was just one part of this complicated desegregation case. Del Valle suggests that the court seemed content that the district was simply offering a "number of programs" for ELLs, without examining the adequacy of these programs. This issue of program adequacy, however, was addressed in subsequent lawsuits.

Castañeda v. Pickard

The right to bilingual education suffered a further blow in 1981 in Castañeda v. Pickard. The case originated in Texas, where plaintiffs charged that the Raymondville Independent School District was failing to address the needs of ELL students as mandated by the EEOA. The federal court ignored the old assumption that Lau and the EEOA mandated bilingual education. Nevertheless, it did find that Raymondville fell far short of meeting the requirements of the EEOA. A major outcome of this case is a three-pronged test to determine whether schools are taking "appropriate action" to address the needs of ELLs as required by the EEOA.

The Castañeda standard mandates that programs for language-minority students must be (1) based on a sound educational theory, (2) implemented effectively with sufficient resources and personnel, and (3) evaluated to determine whether they are effective in helping students overcome language barriers (Del Valle, 2003). Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lau, two other lawsuits have been decided in the high court that, while not related to bilingual education, nonetheless undermine the original legal argument of Lau. [These two cases are Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) and Alexander v. Sandoval (2001).] Thus, the Castañeda standard, which encapsulates the central feature of Lau — that schools do something to meet the needs of ELL students — has essentially become the law of the land in determining the adequacy of programs for ELLs.

Del Valle (2003), however, points out the shortcomings of the Castañeda test. Referring to prongs 1 and 2, she notes that nearly any program can be justified by an educational theory and that some approaches require very little in the way of staff or funding. Of even greater concern is that, under prong 3, a certain amount of time must pass before a determination can be made about the adequacy of the programs. Thus, many students may be harmed before inadequate programs are identified and rectified.

Gomez v. Illinois State Board of Education

Despite these shortcomings, a case 6 years after CastañedaGomez v. Illinois State Board of Education (1987) — demonstrated the value of the Castañeda test in legal efforts to rectify inadequate programs. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit relied heavily on Castañeda in its decision and gave state boards of education the power to enforce compliance with the EEOA. The court declared, in a ruling much like Lau, that school districts have a responsibility to serve ELL students and cannot allow children to just sit in classrooms where they cannot understand instruction. However, as in Lau, the court did not mandate any specific program models.

Recent Lawsuits

Between 1995 and 2001, opponents of bilingual education in a few communities filed lawsuits against their school districts (e.g., Bushwick Parents Organization v. Mills [1995] in New York). Del Valle (2003) suggests that through these cases opponents of bilingual education attempted to turn the original purpose of bilingual education on its head by charging that a program that was developed to ensure that ELL students have the same educational opportunities as all other students was actually preventing equal educational opportunities for ELL students.

These cases also illustrate that attacks on bilingual education are rarely grass-roots efforts by Latino parents but rather are orchestrated by powerful outsiders who mislead parents into joining their cause and in the process often create divisions within Latino communities. Although these legal attacks on bilingual education failed, opponents of bilingual education have scored major victories in the court of public opinion through the English for the Children voter initiatives described earlier.

These voter initiatives, however, have not gone uncontested. Five cases in California were based on challenges to Proposition 227: Quiroz v. State Board of Education (1997); Valerie G. v. Wilson (1998); McLaughlin v. State Board of Education (1999); Doe v. Los Angeles Unified School District (1999); California Teachers Association v. Davis (1999). At least two cases in Arizona were based on challenges to Proposition 203: Sotomayor and Gabaldon v. Burns (2000) and Morales v. Tucson Unified School District (2001). Although some of these resulted in small victories, none has succeeded in overturning the voter initiatives.

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Case law has had a major impact on federal and state policy for ELL students and their families and communities. While the courts have been reluctant to mandate a particular educational model or approach or to give language minorities fundamental rights directly related to the use of their native languages, the courts have nonetheless made it clear that schools may not ignore the unique needs of ELL students.

Any program for ELLs, regardless of the language of instruction or the models used, must do two very important things: teach English and teach academic content. Schools must provide instruction in English for ELLs because they are not yet proficient in English, and because they need fluency in English to succeed in mainstream classrooms and to be successful in life in general in the United States. At the same time, schools cannot focus just on teaching English. Students must also learn the same academic content their English proficient peers are learning, in such subjects as language arts, math, science, social studies, music, art, and physical education. In Chapter 4 we review the different program models for ELL students and how these programs address the legal requirements for teaching English and the content areas.

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Our policy section is made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


Wright, W. E. (2010). Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice. Excerpt from Chapter 3, "Language and Education Policy for ELLs." (pp. 70-76). © Caslon Publishing. Printed with permission, all rights reserved.


Cardenas, J. A., & Cardenas, B. (1977). The theory of incompatibilities: A conceptual framework for responding to the educational needs of Mexican American children. San Antonio, TX: Intercultural Development Research Association.

Del Valle, S. (2003). Language rights and the law in the United States: Finding our voices. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Crown.

Lyons, J. (1995). The past and future directions of federal bilingual education policy. In O. García & C. Baker (Eds.), Policy and practice in bilingual education: Extending the foundations (pp. 1-15). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Tamura, E. H. (1993). The English-only effort, the anti-Japanese campaign, and language acquisition in the education of Japanese Americans in Hawaii, 1914-1940. History of Education Quarterly, 33(1), 37-58.

TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages). (2006a). PreK-12 English language proficiency standards. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Trujillo, A. (2008). Latino civil rights movement. In J. M. González (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Bilingual Education (pp. 505-510). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

U.S. Department of Education. (2003a). Non-regulatory guidance on the Title III State Formula Grant Program. Part II: Standards, assessments, and accountability. Washington, DC: Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students.

Wiley, T. G. (1998). The imposition of World War I era English-only policies and the fate of German in North America. In T. Ricento & B. Burnaby (Eds.), Language and politics in the United States and Canada: Myths and realities(pp. 211-241). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


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