Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Nixon Years: The Bilingual Education Act of 1974
At the same time, the Education Amendments of 1974 continued to allow federal funds to flow to racially imbalanced schools. Perhaps nowhere was this problem more evident than it was in the case of the Bilingual Education Act of 1974. Four years earlier, in 1970, the federal Office of Civil Rights had issued a memorandum requiring all school districts with five percent (or more) national-origin minority students to develop "special programs" to foster these students' acquisition of English. The memo held that a failure to provide equal educational opportunities to non-English-speaking students-that is, a failure to offer them effective programs to compensate for their language deficiencies-would be considered a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The memo added that any school found discriminating against non-English-speaking (or "Spanish-surnamed") students on the basis of their language ability-a proxy for national origin-would lose its federal aid under both Title VII and Title I as well as all other federal aid-to-education programs.
Perhaps most important of all, the memo from the Office of Civil Rights implied that the best way to equalize opportunities for non-English-speakers was to offer "special programs" set apart from regular English-speaking classes. The impact of this argument could not be overstated. For the first time in any federally funded education program, isolated programs inhabited largely by minority students were considered a "civil right." The aims of this memorandum were upheld by the Supreme Court in 1974 in the case of Lau v. Nichols, which concerned Chinese-speaking students in San Francisco. In this case, the court concluded 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 based its ruling in this case not on the Fourteenth Amendment, which might have required classroom integration for non-English-speaking and national-origin-minority group students, but, rather, on the Civil Rights Act, which allowed for the isolation of minority students with language deficiencies so long as their isolation was "temporary" and promised better educational results.
Adding to the federal litigation on this issue in 1974 was a consent decree in New York City in the case of Aspira v. Board of Education of the City of New York. In this case (initiated in 1972), a federal court ruled that New York City's public schools must provide a transitional bilingual education program in which students were taught at least part of the day in their native language-even if this approach meant students would be temporarily isolated from the regular classroom. In support of New York City's bilingual program and others like it, Congress, in the Bilingual Education Act of 1974, directed aid specifically to schools with high concentrations of non-English-speaking (and, typically, minority) students. In this way, cases such as Lau and Aspira, coupled with a steady rise in federal aid for specialized programs for minority students, gave schools an incentive to maximize enrollments in aid-eligible programs- even if this strategy did not foster racial integration. In urban areas with large numbers of minority students and high demand for specialized services, this dilemma was difficult to resolve.