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States Urged To Assume Civil-Rights Leadership

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Washington--A former chief of civil rights for the Education Department last week told state education officials that states must take more responsibility for providing equal opportunities for students in light of a diminishing federal role and more sharply defined state interests in civil rights.

Speaking at a meeting here of educational-equity specialists held by the Council of Chief State School Officers, Cynthia G. Brown said the department's office for civil rights is "structurally obsolete in the way that it excludes a state role in the achievement of federal education3equity goals." Ms. Brown headed ocr during the Carter Administration and is now co-director of The Equality Project, a nonprofit organization based here.

Having assumed the dominant position in public education in the 1980's, state governments now have economic, legal, and moral interests in providing equal educational opportunities for all students, Ms. Brown said.

As an example of the type of problems states may face in the next few years, she cited the uneven distribution of qualified teachers that could result from new state-mandated tests for teachers, the impending teacher shortage, and higher graduation requirements.

"Lawsuits similar to school-finance suits might be initiated to ensure that scarce resources like math and science teachers are equitably distributed," she postulated. "Such lawsuits would assert that states are liable if students, particularly minority students, suffer disproportionately because their school systems are un-able to offer the basic program of instruction mandated by the state."

Ms. Brown's remarks were based on a draft report of a $200,000 study supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and completed under the auspices of The Equality Project. The final version of the study, which examines enforcement efforts in six states--California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina--is scheduled to be completed this summer.

Federal Office Faulted

Civil-rights advocates, including Ms. Brown, have criticized as a retreat from a traditional federal responsibility the Reagan Administration's efforts to delegate some civil-rights enforcement efforts to states.

But she told the equity officers that while she may "quarrel mightily with the lack of commitment to civil-rights enforcement of some Reagan Administration officials," she has also been "forced to conclude that many problems in the current federal civil-rights program in education have roots before this Administration came to office."

She listed six major flaws in the federal enforcement apparatus: the exclusion of state agencies; excessive focus on middle-income, rather than lower-income, victims of discrimination; indifference to seemingly intractable equity-related problems in large urban districts; insensitivity to the need for research related to equity issues; inefficient organizational structure; and overly narrow litigation and enforcement strategies.

In the study of six states, Ms. Brown concluded that state civil-rights enforcement efforts vary widely, depending upon "political culture, education environment and traditions, racial and ethnic demographics, and especially individual leadership."

She said that efforts have developed "in spite of little direct encouragement" from the federal government, with the exception of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which required every state to establish complaint-resolution procedures.

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