Language and educational policies for children new to English in the United States continue almost spontaneously. This appears to be influenced by immediate social, political, and economic factors. Data obtained from the 2000 Census have revealed that the number of children between the ages of 5 and 17 who speak a language other than English has increased by over 54% from the previous 1990 Census. This information is derived from self-reported language use and proficiency, and interpretation of the data by language and education policymakers is just beginning to emerge. Policymakers will likely use these data to formulate, alter, and institute language and educational policies affecting children for whom English is a new language. Such policies will ultimately affect classroom practice and the ways in which English language learners (ELLs) throughout the United States are educated.

Since 1990, the ELL student population in the U.S. has increased by 95%, while the school-age population in general has grown only 12% (Northeast and Islands, 2003). Although the United States does not have an official national language policy delineating specific language policies and practices for schools, many states have passed language policy legislation that ensures the status of English over other languages. Spanish speakers account for approximately 60% of the total number of ELLs in the United States.

This Web site is devoted to exploring current language and educational policies with emphasis on how these policies can be put into practice. We have highlighted the following areas:

  • A legal rationale for establishing and implementing policy protective of English language learners
  • The demographic relevance of ELL policy development for rural schools
  • Guidelines for crafting a plan that includes indicators for school/district readiness, ELL identification, assessment, support systems, exit criteria, and the measurement of policy impact.


Legal Rationale

The foundation for providing ELLs equitable access to learning began with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Supreme Court opinions, case law precedent, and congressional actions following passage of this law have strengthened the legal rationale for assuring that ELLs receive an equitable education appropriate to their linguistic and academic needs. With these protections, there is ongoing, improved clarification about the implementation of instructional practices that ensure equitable access for all ELLs in publicly supported programs and practices. Schools are bound by legal provisions that support English language learners.

The educational rights of school-age English language learners have been safeguarded through a series of legislative acts and court decisions (see Legal Provisions) that have occurred since the 19th century. The following information from the Mid-Atlantic Equity Center is a basic timeline for legal milestones:


United States Constitution - Fourteenth Amendment: No person is denied the protection of the laws of the United States.


Civil Rights Act - Title VI: "No person 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 (EEOA): This act states that schools need to take appropriate measures to overcome language barriers that impede students' participation in programs.


Supreme Court Case -- Lau v. Nichols: The court ruled that giving all students the same desks, books, teachers, and lessons does not mean that they have equal opportunity, especially if there are students who do not speak English.


Federal Court Case -- Serna v. Portales: The court ascertained that Spanish surnamed individuals did not reach the same achievement levels as non-Spanish surnamed peers. The court ordered the Portales Municipal School District to design and implement a bilingual and bicultural program.


Federal Court Case -- Castaneda v. Pickard:The Fifth Circuit Court established a three-part test to determine if school districts are complying with the EEOA of 1974. The requirements include:

  1. Theory - The school must implement a program based on sound educational theory or, at a minimum, a legitimate experimental program design.
  2. Practice - The school district must put into practice the educational program they have designed. They must allocate the necessary personnel and practices to transfer theory to practice.
  3. Results - The school must stop programs that fail to produce results.


Supreme Court Case - Plyler v. Doe: The court ruled that schools cannot deny students access simply because they are undocumented (illegal) aliens. In other words, the schools are not agencies or agents for enforcing immigration law.


Federal Court Case - Gomez v. Illinois: The court ruled that the State Educational Agencies must also comply with the three-point test established in Castaneda v. Pickard.


No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 - This act makes federal funding for states dependent on student progress. According to the act: "States that do not meet their performance objectives for LEP students could lose up to ten percent of the administrative portion of their funding for all ESEA state administered formula grant programs."

Why should a school district have a policy in place specifically for its English language learners? School districts must implement policies for equal access of students for whom English is a second or new language. Those policies are set at the level of the local school board, but they may never supersede federal or state law. These policies may be referred to as a Lau Plan or an Equal Access Plan and may supplement a more comprehensive plan protective of the rights of all students. The important point is that school districts must develop policy, and practice must reflect that policy. It may be helpful to view some examples of common misunderstandings that may arise regarding the need for an Equal Access Plan.

Of course, educational policies created at the national level are negotiated at the state and local school district levels as supports are provided to schools, teachers, and their students. In this way, federal policies affect classroom practice in the micro-interactions that occur between teachers and students (Cummins, 2001). Faced with the task of providing consistent and quality instruction within the current socio-cultural climate, content area and English-as-a-second-language teachers, as well as building administrators, are often left to navigate policy complexities and even contradictions with no support beyond their borders. Their tasks are uniquely daunting, given the complexity and interaction of the varied social, political, legal, and economic contexts needed to support the nation's 5 million English language learners, 40% of whom are enrolled in rural schools.

How effective is your school's equity policy? Take this quiz to determine your school's Equity Policy Quotient (EPQ).




Cummins, J. (2001). Language, power and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory. (2003).Claiming opportunities: A handbook for improving education for English language learners through comprehensive school reform. Providence, RI: Brown University.