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Civil-Rights Panel To Review Education Policies

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Hunt Valley, Md--The newly reconstituted U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, following two days of often heated debate, opened the way last week for a reassessment of its existing policies on school desegregation, bilingual education, and a host of other education-related topics.

By a 6-to-2 vote, the commission agreed to review all policies adopted by its predecessor since 1957. "We have a clean slate," said the fact-finding agency's Republican chairman, Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., prior to the conclusion of the new commission's first meeting here in suburban Baltimore. "We do not consider ourselves bound by the policies approved by [the previous] commission."

Although it has no enforcement powers, the commission's recommendations are generally viewed as having had a profound effect on the policies of the executive and legislative branches of government. Equal opportunity in education has long been one of the commission's major areas of inquiry.

The original commission had been highly critical of President Reagan's civil-rights and budget policies, particularly as they related to education. It was replaced by the new body following an agreement between the Congress and the White House over the President's plan to replace some of its members with people whose views are more consistent with his own.

In what some observers predicted was a signal of things to come, a five-member block of commissioners appointed to the panel by President Reagan and Republican leaders in the Congress voted to reject the original commission's policy of support for racial quotas as a means to remedy past discrimination in hiring.

The new commission majority also agreed to undertake studies of affirmative action in higher education, mandatory and voluntary methods of student desegregation, and the possible role of bilingual-education programs in the increasing isolation of Hispanic students.

It also agreed to "insulate" the budgets of "social programs" from commission review.

The panel's apparent shift in direction was strongly criticized by Mary F. Berry and Blandina C. Ramirez, two holdovers from the original commission.

During a press conference after the meeting, Ms. Berry said that the commission "is now a lapdog, and not a watchdog, of the government that is run by people with closed minds."

"If the work of the commission is to become merely the expression of lay opinion on matters of civil rights unrooted in what is required by law or what makes sense based on data, we do not need a commission staff, a budget, or indeed a commission on civil rights," Ms. Berry and Ms. Ramirez said in a joint statement.

Earlier in the meeting, Morris B. Abram, the commission's vice-chairman and a Reagan appointee, defended the positions adopted by the panel's new majority.

"I can say without any fear of contradiction that [the old commission] was a 'Johnny-one-note' group," he said. "On the other hand, this is not a 'Johnny-one-note' commission, and I think that is helpful, because if there is anything the body politiclist of Commission membersappears on Page 16.

needs today, it is informed debate."

Many of the actions taken by the panel last week had been suggested in a Jan. 4 memorandum to the commissioners by Linda Chavez, the staff director. (See Education Week, Jan. 18, 1984.)

The recommendations will be forwarded to the commission's professional staff, which will translate them into project designs. Included in those designs will be an estimate of costs and projected release dates. The commissioners will review this work at future meetings.

Some of the matters the new commission acted on include:

Affirmative action. By a 6-to-2 vote, the commission rejected the use of racial quotas as a remedy for past discrimination in employment.

The switch in policy was contained in a statement criticizing the U.S. Supreme Court for declining to hear a "reverse-discrimination" lawsuit filed by five white Detroit police sergeants. The officers claimed they were unfairly passed over for promotion in favor of less-qualified black applicants. (See Education Week, Jan. 18, 1984.)

Educators have monitored the Detroit case and others like it closely because the outcomes could affect similar hiring plans for teachers and other school personnel.

Racial-quota systems "constitute another form of unjustified discrimination, create a new class of victims, and when used in public employment, offend the Constitutional principle of equal protection of the law for all citizens," the commissioners said. "Accordingly, it is a device that should be eschewed, not countenanced."

The panel also agreed, 7-to-1, to undertake a "major study" of affirmative-action programs in higher education.

As recommended by Ms. Chavez, one part of the inquiry would examine possible links between such programs and declines in academic standards.

Student financial aid. The commission voted 5-to-2, with one member voting present, to cancel a study on the effects of financial-aid cutbacks on minority students because such a study was beyond the panel's jurisdiction.

"Discrimination is our foe, the evil which this commission has been asked to address, not funding prob-lems and social programs," said the panel's vice-chairman, Mr. Abram, explaining his vote against the project.

Federal budget studies. The panel also voted 5-to-2, with one member voting present, not to conduct studies of President Reagan's proposed fiscal 1985 budgets for civil-rights enforcement and equal-opportunity programs. Previous studies by the commission on these topics have been highly critical of the President.

"The issue of discrimination is not related to the budget," Mr. Abram repeated.

"You can have discrimination in a program whether you have a budget increase or a budget decrease. It all depends on the administration of the program."

The panel agreed, at the recommendation of Ms. Chavez, to substitute the study of the civil-rights enforcement budget with one that will examine shifts in civil-rights enforcement policies from 1971 to the present.

'New perspectives on discrimination.' The commission voted 5-to-3 to conduct a study proposed by Commissioner John H. Bunzel, an Administration appointee, to determine why discrimination "by itself does not explain" all of the problems of minority groups today. "Simply to hang on to discrimination is to hang on to the wrong explanatory concept,'' Mr. Bunzel said in his project proposal.

"It is a gross oversimplification to suggest that racism and discrimination are still the root cause of why certain minority groups fall below average in income and occupation.

"To accept this premise is to overlook better-than-average achievements of other minorities that have suffered discrimination."

Ms. Ramirez, Ms. Berry, and Commissioner Francis S. Guess voted against the proposal, arguing that it is outside of the commission's jurisdiction as defined by the panel's new majority.

Hispanic segregation. The commission agreed without dissent to conduct a study of the increasingion of Hispanic students in public schools. At Ms. Chavez's recommendation, they also agreed that the study should place "special emphasis" on the possible role of bilingual-education programs in this pattern.

One of the two holdover commissioners, Ms. Ramirez said she had "grave reservations about this approach."

"This area is already overburdened by ideology," she said.

School desegregation. The panel agreed by unanimous consent to redesign an existing project on voluntary methods of desegregation to include a review of mandatory student busing.

Ms. Berry, acknowledging that she was "spitting in the wind," suggested that the commission "not reinvent the wheel" and simply review all existing literature on the topic.

"If this body decides to say that busing is up for grabs, that it's illegal, well that's when I'll part company with you," she added.

School discipline. The commission accepted a recommendation by Ms. Berry to conduct a study of discipline in public schools. It was one of the few items on which the commissioners appeared to have no disagreement.

"Frankly, I think the President would better the serve the public by talking about school discipline rather than school violence," said Mr. Bunzel, a Reagan appointee. "I think he has been focusing on the wrong issue."

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