ELL Court Cases

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  • 0:04 English Language Learners
  • 0:43 Meyer v. Nebraska (1923)
  • 1:51 Mendez v. Westminster (1947)
  • 3:03 Lau v. Nichols (1974)
  • 4:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Leigh Bond

Leigh has taught literacy skills and English Language Arts to adult basic education and high school learners. She has a law degree and a bachelor's in history.

This lesson provides an overview of the major court cases that have made an impact on English language learners (ELLs). The cases covered include Meyer v. Nebraska, Mendez v. Westminster, and Lau v. Nichols.

English Language Learners

English language learner ('ELL' for short) is a term often used to describe a K-12 student whose first language is not English. An estimated 10 percent of the public school population in the United States speaks another language at home. Spanish and Asian languages are the most widely spoken first languages of many ELLs, but ELLs speak over 400 different languages in total. The cases we'll cover in this video illustrate that, regardless of the languages spoken by an English language learner, all ELLs need language support to help them succeed in school and beyond.

Meyer v. Nebraska (1923)

Schools and states don't always agree about how to best support ELLs. When disagreements happen, parents, teachers, and/or ELLs themselves often have to sue in the U.S. Supreme Court. The first U.S. Supreme Court case involving ELLs was Meyer v. Nebraska (1923). The state of Nebraska banned faculty from teaching any other language besides English. Nebraska insisted that the purpose of the state law was to promote civic development and assimilation, or the immersion of immigrants into American society. A teacher broke this law by reading in German to a student.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Nebraska law because the justices deemed it unconstitutional, in that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which in part states, '[no state shall] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.' The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Nebraska's intent to assimilate English Language Learners did not outweigh a parent's right to control the education of their child, a child's right to learn, and a teacher's right to teach.

Mendez v. Westminister (1947)

Although Mendez v. Westminister (1947) was a Federal Circuit court case, not a U.S. Supreme Court case, it's viewed as an important one that impacted ELLs, specifically Spanish-speaking students. Four school districts in California had a segregation policy that they used to separate Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students. Spanish-speaking children attended schools exclusively for Spanish-speaking students, which were located far away from their neighborhoods. The school districts argued that the segregated students did not have sufficient English-speaking skills to attend their neighborhood schools.

A federal court disagreed with the school districts and decided that the segregation was unconstitutional, in that it violated the protections provided in the U.S. Constitution. Under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, no state shall 'deny…any person…the equal protection of [its] laws.' According to the court's reasoning, the California school districts were denying equal protection to the Spanish-speaking students by forcing them to attend separate schools based on their ancestry. The court required that all students should have access to the same schools.

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