Lau v. Nichols in 1974: Summary & Significance

Instructor: Derek Hughes
The case of Lau v. Nichols in 1974 had a very important impact on education for students who do not speak English as their primary language. This lesson will summarize the case and explain its importance to modern American education.

Lau v. Nichols (1974)

The Supreme Court case of Lau v. Nichols led to many changes in education. This case was brought up to the Supreme Court as a result of changes that occurred in the San Francisco school system in 1971. The case, the events that preceded it, and the impact it had on American education will be explored in this lesson.

Important Events

In 1971, after a federal decree, the San Francisco, California school system was integrated. As a result of this integration, nearly 3,000 students of Chinese ancestry were placed into the school system, but did not speak English. These students required additional instruction to learn to speak English.

However, many students (about 1,800), did not receive the instruction necessary to allow them to succeed in school. A class action lawsuit was therefore brought against the San Francisco Unified School District and its administrators. The lawsuit was based on the idea that the students' 14th amendment rights were being violated because they were not being given equal access to educational opportunities.

The district court declined to provide relief for the Chinese-speaking students, a decision upheld by the court of appeals. The courts based their decision on the fact that each student brings with him or her a unique set of circumstances, advantages, and disadvantages that are outside the control of the education system. Thus, schools were not responsible for helping those students overcome their difficulties.

The Supreme Court Case

After both the district court and court of appeals made their rulings, a petition was filed to have the case heard by the Supreme Court. Due to the public importance of and public interest in the case, the petition was granted.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Chinese students. They reasoned that, because the California education standards required students to have mastered English in order to graduate 12th grade and because English was the language of instruction in all schools, non-English speaking students were not being given equal treatment, even though all students were provided with equal access to books, teachers, and curricula.

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