Lau vs. “Lau”

Little Linda Brown of Topeka, Kansas probably ranks as the most prominent plaintiff of an eponymous Supreme Court decision in 20th Century American history, with Ernesto Miranda of Phoenix a close second (and Jane Roe disqualified from the running as a pseudonym).

But placing high in the second tier of such landmark cases would be young Kinney Lau of San Francisco, whose victory in the Lau vs. Nichols decision of 1974 established the legal underpinnings of the bilingual education system, through which so many millions of immigrant students have been processed over the last thirty years.

“Lau” never actually mandated bilingual education for limited-English students, instead merely requiring that some sort of extra help be provided; but America’s large and powerful bilingual education industry frequently claimed that it did, and ignorant—and timorous—school board officials and government administrators seldom forcefully disputed those claims. Our history books are littered with “Lau Plans,” “Lau Remedies,” and “Lau Requirements.”

But what of Kinney Lau himself, then a ten-year-old but now grown to full manhood? For a decade or more, there have been persistent reports suggesting that much of the official history of his case is more spin or fabrication than reality. For example, by some accounts, Lau’s mother was not particularly unhappy with the English-language educational offerings at her local elementary school, and only consented to have her son become the lead plaintiff in that landmark case in exchange for promises of legal assistance in other, more pressing matters, perhaps having to do with housing or employment issues.

Now suddenly, with the disconcerting force of an adult Linda Brown declaring her severe misgivings with nationwide forced busing programs, the front page of Monday’s Boston Globe provided the first interview that Ken Lau—the name he uses as an adult—has granted to the media in 17 years. Although his position on the details of language instruction for immigrant students hardly seems precise—after all, his professional expertise is in computer consulting rather than language acquisition—as the headline indicates, his support for the bilingual education empire established in his name can be described as ambivalent at best.

Furthermore, we must bear in mind that so-called “bilingual” programs for Asian students, about which Lau today would presumably have the best personal knowledge, differ radically from those provided to Latino students. In many respects, the former are actually better characterized as English immersion programs with some native-language support, while the latter are Spanish-almost-only. Clearly, there is an enormous difference between a “bilingual” program in which Mandarin or Cantonese is used just thirty minutes each day, and one in which Spanish is the language of instruction for all BUT thirty minutes each day. And if in the considered hindsight of adulthood, Ken Lau has serious doubts about any lasting benefits deriving from the former, consider the horror with which he might regard the latter.

On a different and continuing story, Paul Campos, a University of Colorado law professor and also one of his state’s most prominent Hispanic columnists, has now weighed with a few friendly paragraphs on the Rod Paige flap, coming appropriately enough at the end of a longer piece on cynicism, in politics and elsewhere.

Although Campos—a quite iconoclastic and free- thinking writer—takes issue with the actual merits of our mandatory “English” initiative heading toward the ballot in his state, he seems much more sympathetic to many of the points I raised regarding racial issues in America, and the enormous quantity of hypocrisy these typically evoke on both sides of the ideological aisle.

I would suspect that many other professional journalists across the country could benefit from having the dispassionate perspective of someone who earns his real livelihood teaching legal theory, a field that lends itself to analytical precision and—hopefully at times—to truth.

Finally, as the brief note from the same Denver paper indicates, over the last couple of weeks, we have made enormous progress in our Colorado signature-gathering, and seem likely to achieve our difficult but necessary goal of obtaining six months worth of signatures in just six weeks.

Having reached the 80,000 signature mark required by law, we will spend the next week or so gathering tens of thousands of “insurance” signatures protecting us against the certainty that some of our total prove to be invalid. Thus, it appears very likely that Colorado voters will have an opportunity to join their California and Arizona and Massachusetts compatriots in enacting “English” this November.

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