Equal Educational Opportunity Act

The Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974 (EEOA) was an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The EEOA came into effect when school boards in the United States were involved in court-required busing of students to desegregate schools and soon after the Supreme Court decided Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado (1973), and Lau v. Nichols (1974). The EEOA is a statute of contradictions. The rights that Congress appeared to grant in its expansive language of equal educational opportunity were undermined by the restricted definition of segregation, the elimination of busing as a corrective remedy, and the ambiguous phrase “appropriate action.” This entry reviews the law and its impact.

On Racial Segregation

The EEOA essentially codified the holdings in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and Lau (1974) by specifically prohibiting the denial of equal educational opportunity by a state educational agency based on race, color, sex, or national origin due to deliberate segregation, failure to take affirmative steps to end the vestiges of formerly deliberate segregation, or the failure to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students. The EEOA also prohibited discrimination against the faculty and staff of school agencies.

At the same time, the EEOA codified the holding in Keyes, which limited desegregation actions to de jure segregration; it also reflected congressional opposition to busing by restricting the remedies available for desegregating school districts. Under the EEOA, if individuals believe that they have been denied equal education opportunities, they, or the attorney general of the United States on their behalf, may file civil suits against offending school agencies.

Pursuant to the EEOA, Congress limited both the scope of actionable segregation and the remedies available to rectify discrimination based on school segregation. Section 1714 codified the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Keyes, which limited desegregation actions to de jure segregation, not de facto segregation. De jure segregation derives from the direct actions of government officials or institutions, usually in the form of explicit legislation or policies, such as creating separate schools for children of different races. De facto segregation results from private decisions, such as where one buys a house or locates a business.

Under the EEOA’s provisions, Congress permitted courts and educational agencies to remedy vestiges of dual systems that were created by direct government action, but it barred actions if subsequent population shifts resulted in de facto segregation. By eliminating actions against de facto segregation, the EEOA severely restricted the ability of minority students to sue for more integrated schools.

Section 1714 also effectively eliminated busing as a remedy. This section mandated that students could be transported only to their neighborhood schools or the next-closest school to the student’s place of residence. Segregated areas often include clusters of adjoining neighborhoods with many segregated schools, so desegregation through busing was possible only when students could be transported to schools that were much further away than the one next-closest to a student’s residence. In addition, Congress also prohibited the required transportation of any student, even to the next-closest school, where that transportation posed a risk to the student’s health or significantly impinged on the student’s educational process. In sum, Section 1714 eliminated the possibility of busing student volunteers and provided resisting students simple objections to being bused. The passage of the EEOA left minority students with few legal options to combat school segregation.

On Language Barriers

The rights that the EEOA provided to limited-Englishproficient students were also eventually made ineffective, though this occurred in a more indirect manner. Under Section 1703(f), Congress outlawed discrimination by a state that resulted from “the failure by an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs.” This codified the Supreme Court’s opinion in Lau, handed down earlier that year (1974). In Lau, the Court maintained that public schools must provide additional language support to limited-English-proficient students so they can have a meaningful educational experience.

In Lau, the Supreme Court left it to state educational agencies to decide what methods they would use to provide this language support. In the EEOA, Congress did not define the term appropriate action, thereby leaving the interpretation initially to state educational agencies and eventually to judicial review. The final result is a definition of appropriate action that is highly deferential to school boards, leaving students who are of limited English proficiency with almost no legal ability to contest a school’s English language support program.

In 1981, the Fifth Circuit in Castenada v. Pickard established a three-part test for determining whether a school district’s language support plan was “appropriate action” as required by section 1703(f). The test required that a school board’s plan should be based on a sound educational theory that is supported by some qualified experts; should provide sufficient resources and personnel to be implemented effectively; and should ensure that after a trial period, students must actually be learning English and to some extent, subject matter content. Subsequently, “sound educational theory” and “some qualified experts” required interpretation.

Later judicial opinions resulted in two primary rules for interpreting these phrases and applying the Castenada test. First, the courts agreed that it was the burden of the student to demonstrate that the school district’s language plan violated the EEOA. This created the presumption that the school district’s existing language plan was appropriate. Second, to meet that burden, the student must show that no expert supports the education theory underlying a school board’s education plan. For students to win their suits under Section 703(f), they must demonstrate that a school district’s language support program could not, under any circumstance, be interpreted as “appropriate action.” This is a nearly impossible burden of proof, for a school board can successfully defend its language program if it presents one expert who will testify that the program is based on sound educational theory, even when experts hired by school boards are challenged by other experts and contradicted by the vast majority of research studies. Under this interpretation, California, Arizona, and Massachusetts have enacted English-only statutes that appear to contradict the intent of Lau and the EEOA. These statutes require English immersion programs and outlaw bilingual education, in direct disagreement with the current best-practices research in second-language acquisition and the views of the vast majority of experts in the field.

Eric M. Haas

See also Bilingual Education; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Equal Educational Opportunities; Civil Rights Act of 1964; English as a Second Language; Limited English Proficiency; Segregation, De Facto; Segregation, De Jure

Further Readings

  • Brown, M. C. (Ed.). (2007). Still not equal: Expanding educational opportunity in society. New York: Peter Lang. 
  • Flicker, B. (Ed.). (1990). Justice and school systems: The role of the courts in education litigation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Legal Citations