The History of Bilingual Education as a Civil Right in the United States-Part Two

by multilingualmania on June 23, 2010

in Bilingual Advocacy, Bilingual Education, Bilingual Politics, Bilingualism, History, Language in Society, Language Policy, Politics

Part Two-The Mid-Twentieth Century

This is the second article in a three-part series chronicling the history of bilingual education as a civil right in the United States.  Part One examined the early history of bilingual education against a background of Native American assimilation and anti-immigrant policies prohibiting foreign language instruction.  Part Two traces the origins of the bilingual education movement from the Supreme Court decisions striking down foreign language prohibitions to the monumental passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Bilingual Education Act in 1968.  Part Three surveys the recent progress of the bilingual education movement and details the national debate between advocates of native-language instruction and defenders of English-only programs.

During the decades that led up to the climax of the Civil Rights Movement, immigrant communities grew and minority groups began to organize in greater numbers.  Organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) formed with a vision of promoting multiculturalism and eradicating discrimination.  Advocates for bilingual education argued that English-only classrooms stifled the progress of non-native speaking students while simultaneously perpetuating racist and xenophobic attitudes in the community.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the energy of the Civil Rights Movement as well as the growing numbers of migrant workers and Cuban refugees planting their roots throughout the country attracted more political attention to the issue of bilingual education than ever before.  Critics of the mainstream curriculum pointed to the poor performance of minority language students and the lack of policies in place to accommodate the growing non-English speaking population.  Civil rights activists championed bilingual education as a means of ensuring equal educational opportunities for all students.  The 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in any federally-funded program based on race, color, or national origin, paved the way for future congressional recognition of bilingual education as a civil right.

In 1968, Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act (BEA), which allocated funds for the development and implementation of language instruction programs designed to accommodate non-native English speaking students.  The Act encouraged school districts to establish new educational programs but did not require participation.  However, in 1974, the Supreme Court made it difficult for states to opt out, ruling in  Lau v. Nichols that English-only schools violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by denying equal learning opportunities to foreign language students.  This landmark decision required schools to take affirmative steps to ensure that minority language students become proficient in English.

Congress affirmed the Lau v. Nichols decision when it passed the 1974 Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA), mandating that all federally-funded schools take “appropriate action to overcome language  barriers that impede equal participation by its students in the instructional process.”  Less than a year later, in an effort to mitigate the flood of civil rights litigation around language education, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare began to aggressively enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, referring to the guidelines it imposed on school districts as the “Lau Remedies.”  Within five years, the Lau Remedies had generated over 350 new bilingual education programs throughout the nation.

The conclusion to this series reviews language instruction in the United States over the last three decades, highlighting major developments in the bilingual education movement and analyzing the key arguments in today’s debate for and against native-language instruction.

Other Parts in this Series:

Part One: The Late-Eighteenth Through the Early-Twentieth Century

Recommended Reading:

Contested Policy: The Rise and Fall of Federal Bilingual Education in the United States, 1960-2001

The Other Struggle for Equal Schools: Mexican Americans During the Civil Rights Movement

Race, Rights and the Asian American Experience

Chicano Students and the Courts: The Mexican American Legal Struggle for Educational Equality

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