The Story of Lau v. Nichols: Breaking the Silence in Chinatown
EDUCATION LAW STORIES, Michael A. Olivas and Ronna Greff Schneider, eds., p. 111, Foundation Press, 2008
Posted: 14 Apr 2009
Lau v. Nichols is a landmark case in language rights. There, the Court recognized for the first time that children who do not speak English have a right to special assistance in the public schools. Lau was decided under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act rather than the Constitution. Nonetheless, the decision has endured for thirty years as a benchmark of equal treatment for English language learners. Despite Lau’s singular importance, the story behind the case has never been fully told. This chapter relies on court documents, newspaper coverage, interviews, and scholarly literature to describe how the lawsuit began, how the litigation strategy changed over time, and how the students secured a surprising and unanimous victory in the United States Supreme Court.
The attorney who filed the case believed that it had to be “Lau, not Lopez” to maximize the chances of success in federal court. His strategy capitalized on the image of Asian Americans as the model minority. Although Lau was brought by Chinese-speaking students, its protections have most often been invoked by children whose primary or home language is Spanish. The role that Spanish speakers have played in keeping Lau alive is vitally important because the Justices did not specify any particular remedy for language discrimination. As legal and political battles continue to be waged to preserve bilingual education programs, the story of Lau provides an invaluable and long overdue look at the ideological and educational struggles that forged this important civil right.
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