By Cheryl Ortega
UTLA Director for Bilingual Education

2024 is the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Lau v. Nichols, a case that had a life-changing impact on Emergent Bilingual students — that is, children learning English.  

Before the Lau case, Méndez v. Westminster in 1947 led to the incredibly significant decision that changed the lives of students of color in California by mandating the integration of public schools. Subsequently, in 1954, Brown v. Board did the same on a national level. However, while Méndez and Brown declared who could sit in a classroom, they were silent about what could be taught in that classroom. 

Twenty years later, in 1974, the parents of Kenny Lau, a Chinese student in San Francisco, filed a lawsuit that resulted in ensuring that all students are guaranteed equal access to the curriculum.  

The SCOTUS decision on Lau v. Nichols passed unanimously. The underlying rationale of Lau is that the burden to guarantee access rests with the school and not with the student: “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.”

Lau is a floor, not a ceiling. Lau does not prescribe a particular program as a solution. It does not mandate bilingual education, but it does mandate that specific programs ensure students the ability to understand what they are taught. It was the gateway to bilingual education, and in 2016 Prop. 58 passed, guaranteeing parents the choice of bilingual education for their children. This was possible due in large part to Lau v. Nichols.