Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/fri/31128UABILINGUAL.html

Forum opens year marking civil rights
November 28, 2003

By Inger Sandal

A public discussion Monday about a landmark court decision that ushered in a new era of bilingual education in the nation's public schools will launch a year of activities at the UA to mark the anniversary of several civil-rights milestones.

Next year is the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, which invalidated racial segregation in public schools and has become one of the most famous Supreme Court opinions. Next year is also the 40th anniversary of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It is also the 30th anniversary of the Lau v. Nichols decision, the focus of Monday's discussion, which found that when children arrive in school with little or no English-speaking ability, submersion or "sink or swim" instruction is a violation of their civil rights.

The suit was brought by non-English-speaking Chinese students against the San Francisco Unified School District. At issue was whether school administrators met their obligation to provide equal educational opportunities by treating all students the same, or whether they must provide special help for students who don't understand English.

Lower federal courts found the district wasn't responsible for those children's "language deficiency," but a unanimous Supreme Court disagreed in 1974.

"It began to define what a meaningful education is," said Mary Carol Combs, an adjunct University of Arizona assistant professor in the department of language, reading and culture. "If a child does not understand the language of instruction, then he or she does not have access to the curriculum."

The issue is still evolving in Arizona, which three years ago became the second state in the nation to severely restrict the availability of bilingual education. Monday's forum will consider what led up to the court decision, the unresolved legal and curriculum issues in this case, and whether the Lau decision has stood the test of time.

Panelists will include professors from UA and Arizona State University.

* Contact reporter Inger Sandal at 573-4115 or at isandal@azstarnet.com.