Bilingual Education

By: Rodolfo Rodríguez

Type: General Entry

Published: August 1, 1995

Updated: February 15, 2020

On June 3, 1973, Governor Dolph Briscoe signed into law the Bilingual Education and Training Act (S.B. 121) enacted by the Sixty-third Texas Legislature. This event marked a historic turning point in the education of Mexican American students in the state. The bilingual-education aspects of the law were new and unprecedented. The centerpiece was the mandate that all Texas elementary public schools enrolling twenty or more children of limited English ability in a given grade level must provide bilingual instruction. That a language other than English could be used in the instruction was especially significant because it abolished the English-only teaching requirement imposed by state laws dating as far back as 1918. The law dealt a serious blow to the notorious "no Spanish rule" institutionalized by the measures. For decades Texas teachers had used English-only laws to sanction punitive actions against Mexican American students who violated the no-Spanish requirement. In the early 1970s, the United States Commission on Civil Rights reported that Mexican American students caught speaking Spanish faced fines (a penny for every Spanish word), had to stand on a "black square," or were made to write "I must not speak Spanish." School personnel rationalized these actions as pedagogical measures.

Tensions between Anglos and Mexican Americans had existed in Texas since the earliest settlements. Anglos saw Tejanos as "culturally dissimilar" and unassimilable. The nationwide xenophobia and nativism at the turn of the century exacerbated the ethnic rift in Texas. The segregated Mexican schools that operated in the 1920s and into the 1960s reflected these tensions. Educators insisted that segregated schools were needed for the benefit of Mexican American children. But the "language handicap" in Mexican schools was an excuse to isolate the children. Indeed, school authorities often assigned Mexican American students to segregated schools purely on the basis of surname, although their first language was English. Mexican schools became socializing instruments for cleansing the "Latin" children of their linguistic and cultural baggage before mixing with Anglo peers. A statement of the Texas Department of Education (later renamed the Texas Education Agency) in 1923 illustrated this view. It extended a welcome to Mexican American parents, but advised that the Mexican language and customs were unacceptable. Mexican children must learn the English language and shed their cultural habits. The "melting pot" dictums were rigidly followed and often forced Mexican American children to spend two to three years in the first grade to learn English. Furthermore, Mexican schools often had run-down facilities and equipment, shortened school terms, and large classes taught by underpaid, ill-trained teachers. The case United States v. Texas (1981) affirmed "pervasive, intentional discrimination throughout most of this century" against Mexican American students. Prejudice and deprivation, District Judge William W. Justice stated, blocked equal educational opportunities for these children and produced a "deep sense of inferiority, cultural isolation, and acceptance of failure." Through their segregated schooling, Mexican Americans had suffered de jure discrimination from the state of Texas and the Texas Education Agency, whose actions were found to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Between 1971 and 1974 the United States Commission on Civil Rights documented the effects of separate and unequal education, the no-Spanish rule, and other culturally exclusionary acts on the education of Mexican Americans. The commission reported that traditional monolingual schools had fostered poor academic performance, demeaning influences, and alienation among Mexican American students. In a 1967 conference, Sévero Gómez, a TEA official, reported on the consequences of sub-par education. He said that about 89 percent of the children with Spanish surnames, and those with Spanish as their primary language, dropped out of school. More specifically, he said that in one of the five largest Texas cities 15 percent of the children had Spanish surnames but provided 90 percent of the dropouts.

Before the passage of S. B. 121 in 1973, both educators and private citizens in Texas had supported projects to improve the education of Mexican American children. In the 1920s escuelitas offered home-based reading and writing instruction in Spanish for preschoolers. These barrio "schools," found mainly in South Texas, operated as late as 1965. In the late 1920s the League of United Latin American Citizens established the "First 100 (English) Words" program for Spanish-speaking preschoolers. In 1958 LULAC, in cooperation with the American G.I. Forum, organized the community-based "Little School of the 400." These schools taught basic English vocabulary considered essential for success in the formal school setting. In 1959 the TEA launched "Little Schools of the 400" summer preschool programs. By 1964 these programs had enrolled some 20,000 students in 173 school districts. Programs in English as a second language also promoted English skills among Mexican American students with limited English proficiency. In 1964 Texas had the highest concentration of Mexican American students enrolled in elementary and secondary ESL programs in the Southwestern states. The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and other legislation sparked a flurry of compensatory measures for "disadvantaged" students. Head Start, Title I, Migrant Education, and Follow Through programs employed varying approaches and techniques to promote English skills. These programs concentrated on language teaching and learning and affirmed that the "language barrier" was primarily a symptom of incompatibilities between the school and learner. In the 1960s the civil rights movement and the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration caused a major change in the perception of ethnic minorities. Institutionally segregated schooling ended, political mechanisms obstructing minority group voting collapsed, and it became unpopular to be publicly racist. Equal educational opportunities for linguistically and culturally atypical learners became a desirable goal. Bilingual schooling emerged as an alternative approach.

In 1964 Superintendent Harold Brantley of the Laredo United Consolidated School District launched the first bilingual program in Texas. He built on the experience of the first bilingual program in the nation, initiated in the Coral Way school in Dade County, Florida. At Coral Way federal funds supported bilingual education for Cuban immigrants and inspired similar ventures elsewhere in the nation. Brantley made the initial effort in the first grade of the Nye Elementary School, and expanded the program into the second and third grades. The idea spread to schools in San Antonio, McAllen, Edgewood, San Marcos, Harlandale, Zapata, Del Rio, Edinburg, Bandera, El Paso, La Joya, Mission, Corpus Christi, and Del Valle. The programs fostered the transition of Spanish-speaking children from instruction in their native language to English-only teaching and learning. The program ranged from exclusive instruction in Spanish with gradual integration of ESL, to thirty minutes a day in Spanish with the rest of the instruction in English. District funds financed the initial programs and later were supplemented with federal subsidies available under Title I or Title III of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. By May 1969, Texas had sixteen school districts with bilingual programs serving 10,003 students.

Before the passage of the Texas Bilingual Education and Training Act in 1973, TEA officials had faced an interesting dilemma when asked to review proposals that violated the English-only law. At first they circumvented the law by reporting these programs as experimental. In 1967, TEA developed an accreditation standard that allowed school districts, on a voluntary basis, to offer non-English-speaking children an instructional program using two languages. In 1969, with support from Representative Carlos Truan and Senator Joe Bernal, the Sixty-first Texas Legislature legalized this permissive standard and permitted bilingual instruction when such instruction was educationally advantageous to pupils. In 1971 Representative Truan presented a bill in the legislature for stronger bilingual programs, but was unable to muster support because the Sharpstown Stock-Fraud Scandal dominated the proceedings. In the next legislature Truan, Senator Chet Brooks, and other supporters won the needed support. The passage of the federal Bilingual Education Act in 1968 helped their cause. This law, originally approved as Title VII to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, addressed the problems of those children who were educationally disadvantaged because of their inability to speak English. Title VII provided competitive grants directly to school districts. Districts were obligated to finance their bilingual projects after a period of five years. By the spring of 1973, nineteen Texas school districts with Title VII programs had to seek local or state funding. They looked to the state for help. Title VII funds also had helped support students deficient in English, but this money could not accommodate the 243,185 limited-English-ability children needing instruction. School districts with the highest proportion of Mexican American students historically have been the poorest funded because of insufficient property taxes. These local districts have been severely hampered in maintaining regular programs.

Chicano activists were able to persuade the United States Office for Civil Rights to investigate violations against "national-origin minority" children. This helped to fortify the argument for bilingual legislation in Texas. OCR broadened its enforcement policies beyond reviews involving discriminatory acts against African Americans. On May 25, 1970, OCR director J. Stanley Pottinger issued a memorandum stipulating that those school districts with more than 5 percent national-origin minority children were obligated under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide equal educational opportunity for language-minority students. Specifically, school districts had to take action where "inability to speak and understand the English language" excluded national-origin minority children from participation in the educational programs. The OCR outlined three criteria: 1) school districts could not assign students to classes for the intellectually disabled, or exclude them from taking college courses on the basis of tests measuring only English language skills; 2) ability grouping for the purpose of dealing with special language needs was permissible if temporary; and 3) parents of national-origin minority children must be informed of school activities in a language other than English, if necessary.

The Texas Bilingual Education Act (S.B. 121) required that school districts use native-language instruction to promote learning and facilitate the transfer of the language-minority child to the English-only mainstream program. English literacy skills were to be developed through ESL teaching. State funds from the Foundation School Program could be used to support these special programs. The allocation for the first biennium (1973–75) of the program was $2.7 million.

The Lau v. Nichols decision of the United States Supreme Court (1974) assured the survival of the bilingual program. The court declared that children who could not understand the language of instruction were denied access to a quality education. On August 11, 1975, Education Commissioner Terrel Bell announced guidelines for identifying and evaluating children with limited English skills and for planning appropriate bilingual education and ESL education. United States v. Texas, filed by the G.I. Forum and LULAC, reinforced legal support for bilingual education. It criticized state efforts to address the needs of children. Judge Justice ordered the TEA to initiate additional bilingual instruction, if needed, to satisfy "their affirmative obligation" and guarantee linguistically deprived children an equal educational opportunity. The decisions in United States v. Texas and Lau v. Nichols were prime catalysts for the expansion of bilingual and ESL programs in the state. Also, increased immigration of non-English speakers has required more language programs to include children from Latin America and Asia.

Reportedly, the Texas population will grow four times as fast as the nation's during the next fifty years. Hispanics will rival Anglos as the state's dominant population group early in the twenty-first century. In 1990, in Texas, of 3.5 million children ages 5–17, 28.2 percent did not speak English at home, and 25.8 percent of the same age group spoke Spanish. The 1973 legislative mandate to increase learning opportunities for Mexican Americans heralded a new era in Texas education. The legislation recognized the political feasibility of requiring instruction in a language other than English, thereby effectively nullifying the infamous no-Spanish rule. However, native-language instruction has been provided for only a fraction of the students who need it, due in large measure to the dearth of qualified teachers. These limitations, notwithstanding, the past twenty years have brought about changes. Though bilingual education has provoked controversy during its short history, it has gained legitimacy as an appropriate and pedagogically sound way to educate language-minority students in the public schools of Texas.

Thomas P. Carter, Mexican Americans in School: A History of Educational Neglect (New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1970). James Crawford, Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice (Trenton, New Jersey: Crane, 1989). Dallas Morning News, December 17, 1986, March 5, 1988. Arnoldo De León, They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes Toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821–1900 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983). J. W. Edgar, "Programs in Texas for Improving Educational Opportunities for Mexican-Americans," in Improving Educational Opportunities for the Mexican-American, ed. D. M. Estes et al. (San Antonio: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1967). Jose Esteban Vega, The Enactment of Bilingual Education Legislation in Texas, 1969–1973 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1980).

  • Education
  • Education Disciplines
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
Time Periods:
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Rodolfo Rodríguez, “Bilingual Education,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 17, 2022,

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August 1, 1995
February 15, 2020

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