Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children
et al., v. Ann Arbor School District
(excerpts)

73 F.Supp. 1371 (E.D. Mich. 1979)


In 1974 Congress voted, in effect, to codify the Lau v. Nichols decision regarding school districts' responsibilities toward limited-English-proficient children. The Equal Educational Opportunities Act required each district "to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs" (20 U.S.C. § 1703[f]). This provision, invoked on behalf of language-minority children, has resulted in a number of court orders for bilingual education. In the King ruling, this principle was extended to children who speak a minority dialect of English. After hearing extensive testimony from linguists, Judge C. W. Joiner issued his "Black English" decision on July 12, 1979.

A major goal of American education in general, and of King School in particular, is to train young people to communicate both orally (speaking and understanding oral speech) and in writing (reading and understanding the written word and writing so that others can understand it) in the standard vernacular of society. The art of communication among the people of the country in all aspects of people's lives is a basic building block in the development of each individual. Children need to learn to speak and understand and to read and write the language used by society to carry on its business, to develop its science, arts and culture, and to carry on its professions and governmental functions. Therefore, a major goal of a school system is to teach reading, writing, speaking and understanding standard English.

The problem in this case revolves around the ability of the school system, King School in particular, to teach the reading of standard English to children who, it is alleged, speak "black English" as a matter of course at home and in their home community (the Green Road Housing Development). This case is not an effort on the part of the plaintiffs to require that they be taught "black English" or that their instruction throughout their schooling be in "black English" or that a dual language program be provided. ... It is a straightforward effort to require the court to intervene on the children's behalf to require the defendant School District Board to take appropriate action to teach them to read in the standard English of the school, the commercial world, the arts, science, and professions. This action is a cry for judicial help in opening the doors to the establishment. Plaintiffs' counsel says that it is an action to keep another generation from becoming functionally illiterate. ...

Section 1703(f) of Title 20, U.S.C. ... is the sole remaining basis for the plaintiff's claims. The issues raised ... are:

  1. Whether the children have a language barrier.
  2. Whether, if they have a language barrier, that barrier impedes their equal participation in the instructional program offered by the defendant. ...
  3. Whether, if there is a barrier that does so impede, the defendant Board has taken "appropriate action to overcome the language barrier."
  4. Whether, if the defendant Board has not taken "appropriate action," this failure denies equal educational opportunity to plaintiffs "on account of race." ...

The court heard from a number of distinguished and renowned researchers and professionals who told the court about their research and discoveries involving "black English" and how it impacts on the teaching of standard English. ... The language of "black English" has been shown to be a distinct, definable version of English, different from standard English of the school and the general world of communications. It has definite language patterns, syntax, grammar, and history. ... "Black English" is not a language used by the mainstream of society black or white. It is not an acceptable method of communication in the educational world, in the commercial community, in the community of the arts and science, or among professionals. It is largely a system that is used in casual and informal communication among the poor and lesser educated.

The instruction in standard English of children who use "black English" at home by insensitive teachers who treat the children's language system as inferior can cause a barrier to learning to read and use standard English. ... If a barrier exists because of the language used by the children in this case, it exists not because the teachers and students cannot understand each other, but because in the process of attempting to teach the students how to speak standard English the students are made somehow to feel inferior and are thereby turned off from the learning process. ...

Research indicates that the black dialect or vernacular used at home by black students in general makes it more difficult for such children to learn to read for three reasons:

  1. There is a lack of parental or other home support for developing reading skills in standard English, including the absence of persons in the home who read, enjoy it and profit from it.
  2. Students experience difficulty in hearing and making certain sounds used discriminatively in standard English, but not distinguished in the home language system.
  3. The unconscious but evident attitude of teachers toward the home language causes a psychological barrier to learning by the student. ...

[T]he evidence suggests that no matter how well intentioned the teachers are, they are not likely to be successful in overcoming the language barrier cause by their failure to take into account the home language system, unless they are helped by the defendant to recognize the existence of the language system used by the children in their home community and to use that knowledge as a way of helping the children to learn to read standard English. ...

Although this statute is a direct congressional mandate to the federal courts to become involved in matters of this kind, this statute makes it clear that discretion is given to the judge to determine what is "appropriate." Accordingly, this court finds it appropriate to require the defendant Board to take steps to help its teachers to recognize the home language of the students and to use that knowledge in their attempts to teach reading skills in standard English. ... It is not the intention of this court to tell educators how to educate, but only to see that this defendant carries out an obligation imposed by law to help the teachers use existing knowledge as this may bear on appropriate action to overcome language barriers. ...