Bilingual Education


Several educational programs exist within public school systems to address the instructional needs of students who do not speak English. Two programs in particular, bilingual education and English immersion, have competed for support from policymakers for adoption in schools. Both of these programs have been influenced significantly by continuing legal and political debates across the United States. This entry discusses bilingual education and related laws and court decisions.

Program Overview


Bilingual education focuses on instruction in two languages, including the student’s home language as well as English. Bilingual education provides instruction in students’ native languages while simultaneously helping them to achieve English proficiency or bilingual fluency. English immersion programs, on the other hand, zero in on instruction in English. Those who favor bilingual education claim that when English language learner (ELL) students are taught in English immersion programs, children receive inadequate support in general education classrooms.
Bilingual education programs are often described as one-way or two-way dual language programs. Oneway dual language programs typically serve only bilingual and ELL students; these programs are likely to exist in schools where one language group, such as Spanish-speaking students, is dominant. Conversely, two-way programs may include native English-speaking children with bilingual and ELL students in the same dual language program.
Historical foundations for bilingual instruction date back to the late 1800s, when assimilation into the American culture, especially the ability to speak and understand English, was strongly desired. The ability to speak and understand English was considered critical to success in America. Moreover, antagonism toward non–English speakers grew during World War I. During this period, bilingual education was all but dismantled with the passage of English-only laws in many states.

Laws and Court Rulings


In Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), a teacher challenged his conviction for violating a state statute that prohibited the teaching of schoolchildren in foreign languages in public, private, or parochial school after he provided instruction in German in a parochial school. According to the Nebraska legislature, the legislation was needed to promote the Americanization of foreignborn students and to ensure that children learned the English language and observed American ideals.
The state supreme court upheld the conviction. In its opinion, the court declared that allowing the children of foreigners to be taught in their native language was a threat to the country. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in holding that such a statute forbidding instruction in a foreign language prior to students’ completion of the eighth grade violated both their liberty interests and those of their parents, rights that were guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment. Although bilingual education was not specifically mentioned in the opinion, the Court’s decision invalidated English-only legislative efforts that impeded bilingual education.

Federal Action


The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 signifies the emergence of federal policy to address the needs of a growing language-minority student population. Senator Ralph Yarborough, a Democrat from Texas, initiated legislation to provide federal funding for schools to adopt bilingual education programs. Congress enacted this legislation as Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, referred to as the Bilingual Education Act of 1968.
As a result of this federal legislation, bilingual education began to regain favor and support across many states. Of particular impact was the fact that the Bilingual Education Act mandated funding for bilingual education programs. Even though funding was available, the act did not provide school systems with clear guidelines regarding the extent and type of programs and services that were to be provided to non-English-speaking students. That is, federal policymakers disagreed and failed to make clear whether bilingual education programs were to promote students’ bilingual skills or to transition students into English dominated instructional classrooms.
Given the lack of clear guidelines and purpose, educators and parents appealed to the courts to mandate specific educational programs for ELLs. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Lau v. Nichols in 1974 is perhaps the most widely recognized case addressing the right of non-English-speaking students. In Lau, the Court concluded that the school board discriminated against non-English-speaking Chinese students enrolled in the San Francisco Public School System. Specifically, the Court explained that the students were denied their right to an equal education as required by Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the Court failed to establish a specific remedy, such as a bilingual education program, to redress the rights of students who were non-Englishspeaking.
During the 1970s, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) took something of an activist approach to the regulation of bilingual education. OCR officials scrutinized school district practices for violations of OCR guidelines and funding, placing funding at risk for school systems that were found to be noncompliant. Yet, by the 1980s, critics of bilingual education had gained political clout, and the English-only movement emerged again. During this time, funds to Englishonly methods increased while funding and time limits were placed upon bilingual education programs.

A Legal Reaction


In the 1990s, Propositions 227 and 203 passed in California and Arizona, respectively, both of which limited the use of bilingual education in public schools. The elimination of the Bilingual Education Act by reauthorizing it as Title III (Part A of which is the English Language Acquisition, Language Acquisition, and Academic Achievement Act) of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) signifies the decreasing political clout of bilingual education programs. As a part of school reform efforts in 2001, Title III of NCLB provides funds for English language learners (ELLs) through competitive grants. The term bilingual education is no longer used; instead, the focus is on rapid acquisition of English language skills.
Pursuant to NCLB, ELLs are expected to meet state academic achievement standards, as evidenced by student performance on statewide assessments. Public schools are required to report student achievement by gender, race, family income level (limited to whether or not students are living in poverty), disability, and English proficiency. Under NCLB, ELLs are included in the English proficiency group, which is referred to as the limited-English-proficient subgroup for purposes of reporting student achievement data.
Ongoing political debates, the lack of clear guidelines, and inconclusive evidence regarding the value of bilingual education will continue to foster disagreement regarding the adoption of bilingual education programs. Schools are legally obligated to demonstrate adequate yearly progress for ELLs, but there remains much debate around just how best to promote high academic achievement for English language learners. Thus, school leaders must adhere to the legal mandates of NCLB, including Title III, and they must be aware of emerging, albeit often conflicting, research on bilingual education.
Susan C. Bon

See also English as a Second Language; Fourteenth Amendment; Lau v. Nichols; Limited English Proficiency; Meyer v. Nebraska
Legal Citations