Legal and Ethical Issues English Language Learners

Legislation Governing ESL Programs

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, interpreted to prohibit denial of equal access to education because of a language minority student’s limited proficiency in English.
An exceptional, user-friendly report regarding the laws, policies, and regulations of ESL education.

Landmark Court Rulings

Many of the court cases concerning the education of ELL students are based on the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which declares:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Lau v. Nichols

The Case:

This 1974 Supreme Court case was brought forward by Chinese American students in the San Francisco Unified School District. Despite their lack of English proficiency, these students were placed in mainstream classrooms and left to "sink or swim".

The Influence:

As a result of this case, the Lau Remedies were created, which essentially require districts to implement bilingual education programs for ESL students.

Furthermore, effects of the Lau case were codified into federal law through the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA); section 1703(f) of this act declares:

No state shall deny educational opportunities to an individual on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin by … (f) the failure of an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs.

Castañeda v. Pickard

The Case:

This 1981 case originated in Texas, charging the Raymondville Independent School District with failing to address the needs of ESL students as mandated by the EEOA (reference above).

The Influence:

As a result of this case, a three-pronged test was enacted to help determine whether schools were adequately addressing the needs of ESL students as required by the EEOA.

The Castañeda standard mandates that programs for language-minority students must be (1) based on a sound educational theory, (2) implemented effectively with sufficient resources and personnel, and (3) evaluated to determine whether they are effective in helping students overcome language barriers (Del Valle, 2003).

Plyler v. Doe

The Case:

This 1982 Supreme Court case examined the actions of a Texas school district, in their following of a statute which allowed exclusion of undocumented students completely from receiving an education. establishes that undocumented children have the right to attend free public school.

The Influence:

The Supreme Court declared this statute as unconstitutional and in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court said:

By denying these children a basic education we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation.


Although a particular approach to ESL instruction has yet to be mandated by the courts, the above cases demonstrate the message put forth by the judicial system that schools may not ignore the needs of ESL students. Schools are responsible for not only teaching English, but also teaching academic content. Both must be taken into account when considering the needs of ESL students and designing an effective instructional plan to meet these needs.

There are additional court cases that are closely linked with the landmark cases described above. Some of these rulings support bilingual education and others put this support at risk.

Respond to the following:

After reading and watching the videos for each of the landmark cases in ESL education that was described, choose one that resonates most with you. Reflect on the ruling and what it means for ESL education. Why did this case resonate with you the most? Why is this ruling most important? What barriers may still exist that the ruling does not address?


  • Public Education for Immigrant Students: Understanding Plyler v. Doe. (2016, October 24).
  • Landmark Court Rulings Regarding English Language Learners. (n.d.).
  • FindLaw's United States Supreme Court case and opinions. (n.d.).
  • CASTANEDA BY CASTANEDA v. PICKARD | 781 F.2d 456 (1986). (1986, January 28).
  • Zacarian, D. (2012). Serving English Learners: Laws, Policies, and Regulations (Rep.). Retrieved


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