Commentary

Civil Rights: Losing the Tools To Do the Job

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The Reagan Administration often claims that it has encouraged voluntary compliance with civil-rights laws. Yet, in its two and one half years in office, it has eliminated or substantially reduced the very tools that make voluntary compliance with such laws in the education field possible.

It convinced Congress to abolish the Emergency School Aid Act program, enacted in 1972 to support school-system desegregation efforts, and fold it into the education block-grant bill enacted in 1981, the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act. Money spent on desegregation-related activities dropped to 8 percent of its former level of $298.5 million in 1979 to an estimated $25.2 million on similar activities in 1982.

Each fiscal year since 1981, the Administration has proposed "zero funding" for the Women's Educational Equity Act, which since 1974 has funded the development, demonstration, and dissemination of model educational equity products and programs.

And it has urged the same fate on Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which initially provided federal funding to help school systems with the special-educational problems associated with desegregation. In the 1970's, it was expanded to provide assistance to meet the educational needs of non- and limited-English speaking students, and, with the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibiting sex discrimination, to provide help with discrimination issues facing girls and women in elementary and secondary schools.

Congress balked at the President's moves, but it did reduce the programs' appropriations. In 1982, appropriations were $24 million for Title IV, a 47 percent drop over two years, and $5.8 million for the women's program, a 42 percent reduction over the same time period.

Further, the Education Department's Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights recently testified before a Congressional Committee that technical assistance is a "component of OCR's efforts to encourage voluntary compliance ... It results in long-term benefits by preventing discriminatory practices, and thereby eliminating the need for costly and time-consuming investigations." Yet OCR's technical-assistance contract budget was only $559,522 in fiscal year 1982, 6.4 percent of the fiscal year 1980 funding level.

There are a number of reasons why such cuts should not have been made.

For one thing, these funds have helped to ease the desegregation of public schools in the South and the cities of the North and West.

The desegregation aid and the Title IV money, which provided the "carrot" to accompany the enforcement "stick" of court-ordered (and OCR-ordered) desegregation, paid for school-system desegregation planners, human-relations training for teachers and parents, and special programs bringing together children of different races and cultures. These funds have provided an incentive for local school officials especially to work hard to make integration succeed.

Indeed, the promise of federal dollars for desegregation activities reportedly caused the Chicago Board of Education to enter into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice rather than to litigate at enormous expense the charge that its school system was illegally segregated. However, according to the Chicago board, the federal government reneged on its promise. In June 1983, the school board filed suit against the federal government for its failure to provide the promised $14.6 million-plus per year in desegregation assistance rather than the $2.1 million it has received since 1981. [Last week, a U.S. district judge ruled in the board's favor. See story in this issue.]

Moreover, many of today's discrimination problems require technical expertise to solve.

Testing experts are needed to evaluate both competency and admission tests and to develop unbiased ones. They and linguists develop instruments to measure the educational needs of non-English speakers. Statisticians develop desegregation plans. Diagnostic experts determine appropriate programs for students in need of special education.

Also, many of the current equity questions and issues are complex and require alternative models in order to be successfully addressed. Reliable data demonstrate that minorities, women, and the disabled are not participating equally or benefiting fully from educational programs offered by our schools and postsecondary institutions. For example:

  • Minority students are less likely to participate in programs for the gifted and talented than non-minority students; in 1980, the greatest disparity in their participation rates was in desegregated schools with 20 to 40 percent minority enrollment (15 out of 1,000 minority as compared with 40 out of 1,000 non-minority students enrolled in gifted and talented programs).
  • In 1981, only 51 percent of female high-school seniors had completed four or more years of high-school mathematics, compared to 67 percent of male seniors.
  • Black students in 1980 were twice as likely to be suspended from schools as white students.
  • White males earned 70 percent of all first professional degrees awarded by universities in 1979.
  • Disabled students were 8 percent of the public-school enrollment in 1979, but they made up only 3 percent of the enrollment in vocational-education programs.
  • Black students were three times as likely as white students to be in classes for the educable mentally retarded in 1980.

Some schools and colleges have instituted programs to correct such disparities. Other institutions could benefit from information about these programs. In the past, OCR, the women's equity act, and Title IV have all sponsored the development of model programs. More models are needed. Instead, fewer can be expected.

It is also true that most education institutions would like to identify discrimination problems and develop solutions themselves before state or federal officials become involved.

In the 1970's, the notion of self-evaluation gained much credence. Federal regulations, under both Title IX and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (which prohibited discrimination against the handicapped by institutions receiving federal funds), mandated self-evaluation efforts by educational institutions receiving federal funds.

But the keys to success were the self-evaluation guides--such as one for conducting self evaluations under Title IX prepared by the Resource Center on Sex Roles in Education under an Office of Education grant--developed and widely distributed through federal technical-assistance grants and contracts. The self-evaluation requirements in Title IX and Section 504 and accompanying guides may be an important reason why compliance with those civil-rights requirements has been faster than with similar requirements under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Most states also want professional staff members trained specifically in identifying and working with local schools to solve equity problems.

The professionalism and leadership of state education officials has grown dramatically over the past 20 years. Title IV funding has enabled many states to hire staff to address equity issues concerning race, national origin, and gender. (While Title IV does not fund projects focusing on inequities involving disabled students, the Education of the Handicapped Act does.) Currently, there are 110 Title IV grants to state education agencies.

State equity officials have often worked successfully with local equity officials also funded under Title IV. However, due to budget cuts, for the past two years no Title IV grants have been made to local school systems, and no training institutes have been funded for local personnel.

In addition, training people and parents of children protected by civil-rights laws about their rights better prepares them to work on their own behalf with school officials. However, OCR and the Reagan Administration have abandoned citizen training.

Virtually everyone agrees that it is best to solve problems at their source whenever possible. While federal civil-rights enforcement remains vitally important, local problem solving can be both faster and less costly, and allow for solutions specially tailored to local conditions. But officials at those levels need resources--staff, materials, and experts--to assume these responsibilities effectively.

More federal funds, not fewer, are needed for technical assistance and incentives for educators to address equity problems as they also address questions of excellence. If these issues are not addressed in tandem, the students left out in the past will again be left out of future reforms and improvements.

Vol. 02, Issue 39, Page 16

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