U.S. Language Policy: A Timeline

Horace Mann, legislator (Massachusetts)

January 1, 1830

Horace Mann, legislator (Massachusetts)

Mann advocates “for the creation of public schools that would be universally available to all children, free of charge, and funded by the state.” These were known as “common schools.” The implications for language policy are clear: school was to be universally available to all children. [Source]

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Compulsory Education Act (Massachusetts)

January 1, 1852

Compulsory Education Act (Massachusetts)

Massachusetts created our nation’s first compulsory education law in 1852, but other notable laws were on the books in 1642 and 1647. Parents who refused to send their children to school were fined and sometimes has their children removed from them. The implications for language policy are evident because grammar was one of two subjects taught, the other being arithmetic. [Source]

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Civil Rights Act of 1866

April 9, 1866

Civil Rights Act of 1866

This was the first federal law in the United States to give all citizens equal protection under the law. The implications for language policy are that if all citizens are equal under the law, then all would be able to benefit from public school education. “It was mainly intended, in the wake of the American Civil War, to protect the civil…

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U.S. Department of Education

January 1, 1867

U.S. Department of Education

President Andrew Johnson signed legislation creating the first Department of Education. “The original purpose of the agency was to collect information on individual schools that would help states establish their own effective public school systems.” [Source] It was re-established in 1979 and tasked with overseeing the government’s spending and mandates on education. [Source] The implications for language policy are that the government became involved in creating mandates.

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Equal Protection Clause of 14th Amendment

July 9, 1868

Equal Protection Clause of 14th Amendment

This is one of several clauses in the 14th amendment. This clause guaranteed equal protection of the law. The implications for language policy are fragile at this point, but the fact that all citizens are guaranteed equal protection of the law should mean that all students in public schools, no matter race, ethnicity, or language ability, are entitled to an equal public school education.

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Plessy v. Ferguson

May 18, 1896

Plessy v. Ferguson

In this U.S. Supreme Court decision, separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The implications for language policy are that non-white students would be entitled to the same language supports as any student, just in a segregated envirnoment.

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Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

January 1, 1906

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

The Foundation was chartered in 1906 to “do and perform all things necessary to encourage, uphold, and dignify the profession of the teacher and the cause of higher education.” [Source] The implications for language policy are that because the Foundation was to work in education policy and standards, one could conclude that such work would include all education policies, including language policies.

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Last State to Make Public School Compulsory (Alaska)

January 1, 1929

Last State to Make Public School Compulsory (Alaska)

Varying dates can be found for when public school education became mandatory throughout the United States. According to this source, Alaska was the last to mandate it in 1929. Laws guaranteeing equal education to those with language barriers came later; nonethesless, from this point forward, all American children were to attend public schools. The implications for language policy are that children from all backgrounds, regardless of race, ethnicity, or language, would now be part of the public school system by law.

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Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

May 17, 1954

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

In this landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, schools could no longer be segregated because the “separate but equal” doctrine was determined not to be equal. The implications for language policy are that upon desegregation, all-white schools would no longer be sheltered from varying dialects or non-English languages and would need to address the differences to provide an equal education for all.

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National Defense Education Act

September 2, 1958

National Defense Education Act

This was the beginning of the federal government’s entrance into education by establishing the legitimacy of federal funding of higher education. It was a reaction to Sputnik and meant to assure solid mathematics and science education in our schools so that the U.S. could compete globally. The implications for language policy are the government’s oversight and reach into public education has been established, allowing them to make mandates that affect schooling across the nation. It also “promoted extensive foreign language programs for language majority speakers” [Source: Jong, E. (2011). Foundations for multilingualism in education. Caslon Pub.]

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Ruby Bridges

November 14, 1960

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges became the poster child for desegregation when she was the first African American student to integrate an all-white elementary school in the South. The implications for language policy are clear: the comfort zone created by whites in their all-white schools was dismantled, and now districts, adminstrators, teachers, and policy makers had to address unfamiliar issues than before, such as differences in dialect.

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Civil Rights Act of 1964

July 2, 1964

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, this sweeping legislation prohibited discrimination in public places and strengthened the enforcement of desegregation of schools. The implications for language policy are that the full weight of the federal government was now behind public schooling for all Americans regardless of race, ethnicity, or language.

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Elementary and Secondary Education Act

April 11, 1965

Elementary and Secondary Education Act

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. “Part of Johnson’s War on Poverty, the act has been the one of the most far-reaching pieces federal legislation affecting education ever passed by the United States Congress, and was further emphasized and reinvented by its modern, revised No Child Left Behind Act.” [Source] The implications for language policy are that money was now being filtered to school districts that served poor students, which indicates the willingness of the government to fund disadvantaged students. Students with a non-English…

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Bilingual Education Act

January 2, 1968

Bilingual Education Act

The Bilingual Education Act (BEA) impacted the needs of language minority students in American schools through bilingual education in both their native language and English. The implications for language policy are that emerging bilingual students could learn through both their first language and their second language. In 2002, a new act, the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act, undermined the BEA because of its focus on moving bilinguals to English only classrooms as quickly as possible.

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Indian Education Act

June 23, 1972

Indian Education Act

This Act was “the landmark legislation establishing a comprehensive approach to meeting the unique needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students” that recognized their “unique, educational and culturally related academic needs and distinct lanaguage and cultural needs.” [Source] In 2001, it is reauthorized in Title VII of the No Child Left Behind Act. The implications for language policy rest in the formal recongition of the unique cultures and languages of the nation’s first peoples and the resulting financial and educational supports provided for members of those groups.

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Lau v. Nichols

January 21, 1974

Lau v. Nichols

“Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563, was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court unanimously decided that the lack of supplemental language instruction in public school for students with limited English proficiency violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”  Source: Wikipedia The implications for language policy are clear.

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Equal Educational Opportunity Act

August 21, 1974

Equal Educational Opportunity Act

Under this Act, Titles I – IV give multiple protections for students who live in poverty and for students who need to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation in instructional programs by providing enforcement and remedies. [Source] The implications for language policy are clear: students with language barriers have clear protection under the law.

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Education for All Handicapped Children Act

November 29, 1975

Education for All Handicapped Children Act

President Gerald Ford signed this law that required public schools to provide appropriate educational services for all children with disabilities. [Source] The implications for language policy are that deaf students could now have protection under the law to receive instruction appropriate to their handicap, or “the fostering of speech and hearing skills and the placement of deaf and hard of hearing students in regular classrooms with hearing students,” which also mainstreamed American Sign Language. [Source]

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Ann Arbor Black English Case

July 13, 1979

Ann Arbor Black English Case

Based upon the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, Judge Joiner ruled in favor of black families with children at Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who claimed that the school board did not take action to overcome a language barrier arising from the children’s black English dialect that prevented the children from making progress in reading. [Source] The implications for language policy are clear: this decision interpreted the law in favor of providing language supports to children with dialects or non-standard English.

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Plyer v. Doe

June 15, 1982

Plyer v. Doe

This case arose in Texas when the undocumented children of Mexican immigrant families who were illegals were being denied access to schooling. Considered a 14th Amendment landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause applied in this case. The implications for language policy are that denying services to a group creates an underclass and disregards “the close relationship between education and…constitutional values.” [Source]

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Individuals wiwth Disabilities Education Act

October 30, 1990

Individuals wiwth Disabilities Education Act

This was one of several reauthorizations of the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act. It specifically addressed the “limited English proficient population” as a group whose academic needs were not being met. [Scource p. 104 STAT. 1108] The implications for language policy are that all students are to be provided an equal education even when extra and appropriated supports are needed to accomplish it.

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Native American Languages Act

October 30, 1990

Native American Languages Act

This act granted the right of indigenous language groups to maintain their language and culture by declaring “the right of Native Americans to express themselves through their languages” and to not restrict it “in any public proceeding, including publicly supported education programs.” [Source] Please read the findings on the primary document here. Excerpt: “The Congress finds that— (1) the status of the cultures and languages of Native Americans is unique and the United States has the responsibility to act together with Native Americans to ensure the survival of these unique cultures and languages…”

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Bilingual Education Act Reauthorization

January 1, 1994

Bilingual Education Act Reauthorization

While the Bilingual Education Act underwent multiple reauthorizations and affected the outcome of many court cases at both the state and federal levels [see Wikipedia], the 1994 reauthorization under the Clinton administration was most important for language policy because it reversed “the march away from primary language instruction” [Source], gave preference to grant applications that developed bilingual proficiency in schools, and provided for indigenous languages. For a thorough but brief overview of Bilingual Education, see Ester de Jong here.

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Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994

October 20, 1994

Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994

This Act during the Clinton presidency was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It mandated that schools should be held accountable for the performance of disadvantaged students at the same level as other students. It also added revised Indian Education Act programs to the Act. [Source] The implications for language policy are that the governement was…

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Oakland School Board Resolution on Ebonics

December 18, 1996

Oakland School Board Resolution on Ebonics

This highly contested school board resolution in California is in part the result of the repeated vetoing of state legislation aimed at recognizing and thus providing for the “unique language stature of descendants of slaves” [Source]. The resolution cites the Bilingual Education Act in which the mandate to “establish, implement and sustain programs of intruction for children and youth of limited English proficiency” [Source] confirms the Board’s determination to provide equal opportunities for such students. In particular, the resolution refers to African Language Systems (i.e., Ebonics) and states that African-American children will be instructed in both their primary language and English. Because of the national backlash and ensuing conversations about the resolution and its claims, the school board passed a second resolution on January 15, 1997, which changed the focus to moving students to English proficiency. The implication for language…

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No Child Left Behind

December 13, 2001

No Child Left Behind

NCLB, signed into law by President George W. Bush, was a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Government involvement in education reached new heights with the passing of this law. The implication for language policy is this: Schools must provide appropriate supports to English Language Learners since school scores, which are needed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress, are tied to subgroups’ acheivements on standardized tests. Further, students were expected to become proficient in just a few years and be moved into English-only classrooms and take standardized tests in English. Read more details in this Act about Federal support for English language instruction in the executive summary (p.3) here.

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American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: Race to the Top

July 24, 2009

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: Race to the Top

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a stimulus package signed into law on February 17, 2009, by President Obama, replaced the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994. It provided $115 billion for education spending, including $13 billion for low-income public school children, $12.2 billion for IDEA special education, and $4.35 billion for the program Race to the Top. [Source] The Race to the Top initiative offered competitve grants to states that made dramatic changes to their education systems such as accelerating student performance, adopting rigorous academic standards, implementing data systems to measure student progress, and evaluating teacher and principals in part on students’ performance. [Source] The implication for language policy is that student performance included subgroups, such as emerging bilinguals, so teachers and administrators needed to assure the success of the school’s special populations of students.

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Every Student Succeeds Act

December 10, 2015

Every Student Succeeds Act

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) during the Obama administration repealed the No Child Left Behind Act and amended the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It is the United State’s current set of rules governing K-12 public school education and aims to provide a quality education to all students. Four historically disadvantaged groups are provided four in this Act, namely, students in poverty, students of color, students who receive special education services, and students with limited English language skills. [Source]…

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Executive Order on White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics

September 13, 2021

Executive Order on White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics

President Joe Biden’s executive order has positivie implications for Hispanics in America, especially in regard to their education. The initiative will “identify and promote evidence-based practices that can provide Hispanic and Latino students with rigorous and well-rounded education…as well as access to support services that in improve their educational…opportunities” in the face of hisotrical inequities in the classroom. [Source] Enacting policies that support Hispanic children, who constitute more than 27 percent of all pre-K through 12the grade students, means providing more and better services to support English language development.

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