The Suit That Started It All

The Lau Case: When Learning in a Native Tongue Became a Right

SAN FRANCISCO—Even as Edward Steinman pushed his lawsuit, working his way through the courts with an argument that would help spread bilingual education through the American public school system, his aunts invoked the memory of his own late father — the Russian immigrants’ child, speaking nothing but Yiddish, who was thrown into American public schools and made to learn English on his own.

And the elder Steinman did learn English, fluently enough to spend his life as a journalist. “I think there are many, like my father, who did it without bilingual education,” Steinman said recently. “But the studies show there are hundreds of thousands of people who without bilingual education are not going to learn English.”

Steinman was barely out of law school, a long-haired 25-year-old lawyer working in 1970 out of a cramped basement office in San Francisco’s Chinatown, when he began keeping notes about Chinese clients who were complaining through interpreters that their children were not following what went on in class. They would come to him for other reasons, like the woman who visited him to talk about a problem with her landlord and then, as Steinman remembered it, began hesitantly answering his questions about her 6-year-old son.

The boy, Steinman said she told him, spoke only Chinese. The teachers spoke only English. The woman’s name was Mrs. Kam Wai Lau, and within a year the name of her son Kinney led the long list of plaintiffs in a lawsuit that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Confronted with evidence that fewer than half of San Francisco’s Chinese-speaking students were receiving any language help, the court declared that schools must offer language-minority children some special attention. And that attention, a federal panel concluded a year later in a controversial 1975 set of guidelines, was to be dual-language education.

There was nothing wholly new about bilingual education; German immigrant children had learned history and reading in 19th-century German public schools around the Midwest. In 1968, prodded in part by Hispanic activists and the extraordinarily high Hispanic dropout rate, Congress had begun approving money for local districts that wanted funding for the dual-language teaching they had begun trying with some of their students.

But this was different. Now the government was demanding it. The post-Lau guidelines never developed the force of law — a brief 1981 effort to turn them into published Department of Education rules was withdrawn after intense public argument — but for the next decade, they set federal policy and strongly influenced state education laws. And the guidelines were insisting that unless a district with a lot of language-minority children could prove that its own approach was demonstrably effective, the younger children had to be taught in their own language while they learned English.

As for the young Lau, who now goes by the name of Kenny and is a 21-year-old part-time computer programming student at San Francisco’s City College, the whole case is a memory so dim that he had to be reminded in an interview who Steinman was. “I think the only reason I lost out is because I was lazy — that’s all there is to it,” he said. “It’s nothing to do with understanding what an instructor’s saying.”

He did graduate from high school, and recently finished his English composition class midterm — he got a C. His own elementary school, on the border of San Francisco’s Chinatown, now offers classes with some instruction in both Spanish and Chinese. Might Chinese language instruction have helped him do better in school? “I don’t know,” he said. “Well, maybe — yeah, it might have made a difference — let’s say if I didn’t understand something, maybe I could hear a different version of it in Chinese. I don’t know. Never happened to me.”



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