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House Panel Grills E.D. Rights Chief On Enforcement

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Washington--The Education Department's top civil-rights official told a House subcommittee last week that he has asked his staff to consider ending compliance reviews at schools and colleges, but he acknowledged that he may not have the legal authority to do so.

"It's not inappropriate to ask the question," said Harry M. Singleton, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights. His comments came in the course of a three-hour grilling by Representative Ted Weiss, Democrat of New York and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations and Human Resources, which oversees the relationship of federal agencies to state and local governments.

The hearing, the second of two oversight hearings, focused on a number of issues surrounding the enforcement efforts of the department's office for civil rights.

Representative Weiss questioned Mr. Singleton on a memorandum he had written to his staff in March, directing them to investigate whether technical assistance--a process that simply involves advice to schools--could be used to replace compliance reviews, which usually involve exhaustive investigations of an institution's policies and practices. (See Education Week, Sept. 11, 1985.)

In response to a question from Representative Weiss as to whether the ocr could eliminate compliance reviews, Mr. Singleton replied, "No, I don't think we can."

He agreed that the federal law requires compliance reviews, but said that he is asking his legal staff to examine the question.

"Recipients [of Education Department funds] often don't know what's required of them," he told members of the panel. "With some technical assistance, the problem is taken care of."

The department is currently specifically required by federal regulations and court orders in a long-standing civil-rights lawsuit to conduct compliance reviews.

Quality Assurance

Mr. Singleton was also closely questioned by Representative Weiss on a number of cases in which the ocr's quality-assurance staff had criticized the agency for failing to bring action against a school or school district. The assistant secretary disbanded the quality-assurance staff earlier this year.

In one instance, the ocr allegedly dropped a case based on a complaint by a special-education student in a public school, even though the agency failed to obtain assurances from the school district that it would correct violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in future due-process hearings.

In another case, the office determined that a school did not violate Section 504 because the student who had brought the complaints against the institution was not handicapped. According to an internal memo, the quality-assurance staff later determined that the student was, in fact, learning-disabled.

Representative Weiss also quoted from several memos from the quality-assurance staff questioning the ocr's evaluation and review procedures.

In one memo, concerning reviews of interscholastic athletic cases based on Title IX, the federal law that bars discrimination in education on the basis of sex, the quality-assurance staff found that "there are limited instructions to regional elementary- and secondary-education staff on how to conduct complaint investigations or compliance reviews in this area, and to an extent, the instructions are contradictory.''

Did Not Recall

In most of the instances, Mr. Singleton said he was not familiar with the specifics of the cases, and said he could not recall the memos. Mr. Singleton told the subcommittee that he decided to disband the Washington-based quality-assurance staff because "it seemed more a nuisance than a help. ... [It] was just another layer of bureaucracy."

The assistant secretary added that each regional ocr office has its own quality-assurance staff and that he has set up a task force to study the issue.

Representative Weiss charged that the assistant secretary abolished the Washington staff because "it made some serious allegations and you didn't like them."

On the issue of desegregation in public postsecondary institutions, Representative Weiss cited a number of the so-called first-tier states--Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Oklahoma--which must show that they are complying with court-ordered desegregation plans by the end of this year.

The Congressman charged that the ocr would be willing to find the states in compliance if they simply showed "good faith," even if they had not met the goals set out.

"We will make a decision based on the state's plan," Mr. Singleton replied. "If the institution has done everything that it has committed itself to do and done everything else it can be expected to do--well, to hold it to a goal would be making that goal a quota, and this Administration does not hold with quotas."

The subcommittee plans to issue a report on the hearings before the end of the year, but Representative Weiss said that two days of public hearings have already shown that the ocr "backs off strong law enforcement at every opportunity, and that discrimination, left unabated, will rear its ugly head again."

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