A collage featuring two young Asian boys doing school work, black and white photos of school children, a gavel, and text of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

442: The lawsuit that helped students access an equal education

Fifty years later, Lau v. Nichols’ legacy ensures non-English-speaking students receive the support they need to succeed

Lau v. Nichols passed in 1974.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

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Nowadays, students in the United States who aren’t fluent in English are typically enrolled in supplemental programs for English language learners (formerly known as English as a second language).

But this wasn’t always the case. It took Lau v. Nichols, a lawsuit that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, to ensure that public school students with limited English proficiency would receive the help they needed.

The unanimous decision, which came down on Jan. 21, 1974, was three years in the making after San Francisco schools were desegregated in 1971. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) absorbed 2,856 students of Chinese ancestry who were not fluent in English.

And while Congress had passed the Bilingual Education Act in 1968, which was supposed to address the needs of such students, school participation in these types of programs was voluntary. So it was no surprise that of those Chinese students in San Francisco, only about 1,000 received any supplemental English instruction. The remaining 1,800-plus students were left to sink or swim in classes that were taught exclusively in English, without any additional help.

Those non-English-speaking students, including a 9-year-old boy named Kinney Kinmon Lau, fought back and filed a class-action lawsuit against Alan H. Nichols, then-president of SFUSD, and other district officials, seeking “relief against the unequal educational opportunities,” according to the department. The students alleged the district was violating their Fourteenth Amendment rights—specifically the equal protection clause, which guarantees equal protection of the law, regardless of their citizenship status, including equal access to an education. They also alleged that the district was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which (among other things) requires the federal government to “institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs.”

The lawsuit went through the District Court for the Northern District of California and Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—both of which denied any relief for the students—before landing in front of the highest court in the land. And unlike the judges at the smaller courts, the Supreme Court justices unanimously decided that by not providing students with supplemental language instruction in public schools, SFUSD was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it denied non-English speakers a meaningful education.

In the opinion of the court, associate justice William O. Douglas wrote, “Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes, or results in racial discrimination.”

Fifty years later, Lau v. Nichols’ continues to be an important decision in multilingual education, ensuring students of all backgrounds are able to access equal educational opportunities.

Published on January 24, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.