Basis for English Learner Programs

Federal Law

The most important Federal laws establishing the rights of all students are set forth in:

Constitution of the United States, Fourteenth Amendment (1868)

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees that “. . . No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Civil Rights Act, Title VI (1964)

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 declares that “. . . No person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color or national origin . . . be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Equal Educational Opportunities Act (1974)

The Equal Educational Opportunities Act makes educational institutions responsible for taking the necessary steps to overcome linguistic and/or cultural barriers that keep students from equal participation in instructional programs. Specifically “. . . No State shall deny equal educational opportunity to an individual on account of his or her race, color, sex or national origin, by . . . 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 . . .”


Supreme Court

In addition to the Federal laws, the following select court rulings further define the rights of English Learners:

Lau v. Nichols (1974)

In Lau v. Nichols (1974), the United States Supreme Court held that San Francisco’s failure to provide supplemental English language instruction to 1,800 students of Chinese ancestry violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (42 USC, Section 2000d).

Lau establishes a district’s obligation to provide English Learners with meaningful access to the educational program. When a parent declines participation in a particular formal language instruction program, the district must continue to ensure that the student has an equal opportunity to have his or her English language and academic needs met.

Castañeda v. Pickard (Texas, 1981)

While Lau was important in the development of the legal basis to defend the rights of English Learners, Castañeda has a special relevance, since it provides important criteria for determining a school’s degree of compliance with the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974.

In the Castañeda suit, parents of Mexican American children charged the Raymondville Independent School District (Texas) with instructional practices that violated their children’s rights. Reversing an initial District Court finding, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the Mexican American plaintiffs. It then went on to formulate a test to determine school district compliance with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (1974). Compliance requires the satisfaction of three criteria:

  1. Theory: The school must pursue a program based on an educational theory recognized as sound or, at least, as a legitimate experimental strategy
  2. Practice: The school must actually implement the program with instructional practices, resources, and personnel necessary to transfer theory into reality
  3. Results: The school must not persist in a program that fails to produce results

California Law

Former State Bilingual Education Act: AB 507

This act (1984) established specific bilingual program requirements for identification, instruction, staffing assignments, classroom composition, reclassification, and parent involvement.

CA Ed.G.E. Initiative (Proposition 58)

In November 2016, California voters approved Proposition 58, also known as the CA Ed.G.E. Initiative. The purpose of the CA Ed.G.E. Initiative is to ensure that all children in California public schools receive the highest quality education, master the English language, and access high-quality, innovative, and research-based language programs that prepare them to fully participate in a global economy.


The CA Ed.G.E. Initiative authorizes school districts and county offices of education to establish language acquisition programs for both native and non-native English speakers, and requires school districts and county offices of education to solicit parent and community input in developing language acquisition programs. Prop 58 overturned most of Prop 227 which limited the opportunity for the expansion of language programs.


Enforcement Policy

Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education 

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is charged with monitoring school districts’ compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It does not prescribe a specific educational program that will provide adequate learning opportunity for English Learners. Rather, each school district must choose a proven approach, or an approach that promises to be successful, and is most appropriate to its own needs, conditions, and resources. The OCR, however, requires that all programs carry out certain basic functions by which schools will:

  • properly identify students who need language services
  • develop programs that are effective in promoting learning
  • provide adequate teachers, educational materials, and physical space
  • adequately evaluate students’ progress
  • evaluate the whole program on an ongoing basis and implement changes when and where they are found to be needed.

OCR investigates complaints that allege a district’s failure to comply with these requirements or with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

California Department of Education Federal Program Monitoring

In addition, every two years, the California Department of Education conducts an audit of English Learner programs to ensure that schools and districts are in compliance with state and federal laws that protect language minority children and the services they receive.

This page was last updated on June 30, 2022