Probably the most important legal event for bilingual education was the Lau v. Nichols case, which was brought against the San Francisco Unified School District by the parents of nearly 1,800 Chinese students. It began as a discrimination case in 1970 when a poverty lawyer decided to represent a Chinese student who was failing in school because he could not understand the lessons and was given no special assistance. The school district countered that its policies were not discriminatory because it offered the same instruction to all students regardless of national origin. The lack of English proficiency was not the district’s fault.
Lower courts ruled in favor of the San Francisco schools, but in 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the plaintiffs. In his opinion, Justice William O. Douglas stated simply that “there is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.” The Court cited Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, noting that the students in question fall into the protected category established therein.
What Lau v. Nichols did not do was establish a specific bilingual policy. Individual school districts were responsible for taking “affirmative steps” toward reaching the goal of providing equal educational opportunities for all students.