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Justice's Probes of Schools Questioned

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Washington--The Justice Department's top civil-rights official disclosed in newspaper interviews on Sept. 20 that his office is broadening a four-year-old investigation to determine whether public schools have practiced discrimination by deliberately downgrading their curricula to enable higher percentages of minority students to graduate.

But Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and his immediate predecessor said two days later that they were completely unaware of the initiative, and one Education Department official last week described the incident as "a real foul-up."

In addition, former employees in the office of William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said last week that they and their colleagues who remain in the office have seen no evidence that the new investigations are under way. Furthermore, they said that little, if any, action has been taken over the past four years with respect to the initial investigations.

Mr. Reynolds's comments to reporters from The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times also drew strong protests from public-school officials and civil-rights groups. And the comments thrust Mr. Reynolds back into the limelight just two months after he was denied a promotion by a Senate committee, in part due to allegations that he has attempted to weaken federal protections against discrimination in schools and colleges.

At issue is Mr. Reynolds's disclosure that several school districts are under scrutiny to determine whether they have purposely created "two-track systems" that leave minority students "ill-equipped to read and write and deal with arithmetic concepts" and unprepared to compete in the "real world."

Mr. Reynolds explained that the inquiry grew out of a longstanding investigation of inequities in the distribution of school resources, such as funding and teachers, between white and minority students. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1981.)

In addition, he said that because of the complexities of the issues involved, the Justice Department might not take school officials to court, choosing instead to negotiate settlements privately with the assistance of the Education Department and state and local officials.

E.D. Officials Unaware

Shortly after Mr. Reynolds's comments were reported, Mr. Bennett, his immediate predecessor, Terrel H. Bell, and the head of the department's office for civil rights all told reporters that they were not aware of the investigations, despite Mr. Reynolds's statement that violations of law would be corrected through joint action by the two agencies.

Their statements also appeared to conflict with assertions last week by Mr. Reynolds's spokesman, John V. Wilson, that officials from the two departments "have discussed the matter informally."

An aide to Mr. Bennett last week described the "real foul-up" as particularly distressing because of Mr. Reynolds's close personal relationship with several top education officials.

Former Employees Skeptical

Also last week, lawyers who have recently left the division headed by Mr. Reynolds told Education Week that neither they nor their colleagues who remain in the office have seen evidence indicating that there has been much significant action on the investigations launched four years ago or that any new investigations have been initiated.

The lawyers, who spoke on the condition that they not be named, acknowledged that they could not be certain that investigations do not exist. But they noted that they were in a position to be aware of such probes and saw no evidence of any action.

Furthermore, they said Mr. Reynolds had never encouraged or prompted them to move forward on the original investigations into the distribution of school resources, adding that any action taken to date was the result of their own initiatives.

(One development not mentioned by the former Justice Department lawyers but apparently related to Mr. Reynolds's comments has come to light, however. Spokesmen for the Los Angeles Unified School District and Mr. Reynolds confirmed lastel14lweek that the district was notified several weeks ago that it was being investigated on charges that it has provided Hispanic students with fewer resources than whites.

William Rivera, a spokesman for Superintendent of Schools Harry Handler, said the charges were without merit, pointing out that the district is 52 percent Hispanic and more than 80 percent minority.)

Justice Defends Position

In interviews last week, Mr. Wilson of the Justice Department defended the agency against allegations that it has proceded with the investigations halfheartedly, saying that its critics "are misinformed."

"Our equal-educational-opportunities section in the division is actively looking at inequalities in the education of minorities," he said. "These investigations are being carried out by career attorneys in the department."

Mr. Wilson also challenged assertions that the department has deliberately delayed its investigations of unequal distribution of school resources. He said no action has been taken to date because "these are complex questions that take a lot of work to develop."

Many civil-rights leaders and public-school officials said last week that they were skeptical of Mr.4Reynolds's stated objectives. Some alleged that the announcement was part of a coordinated effort by the Administration to discredit public education.

"This is a clearly political act, not a legal initiative as they claim," said Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "It's part of a campaign--an artillery barrage, if you will--to soften up public opinion by discrediting public schools. Once this is done, the Administration can come in and say, 'We can solve all your problems with tax credits, vouchers, and other devices that promote choice in education.'

"Trapeze acts like these aren't going to improve schools," he concluded.

"The whole thing is 98 percent rhetoric," said Gary Orfield, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who has conducted numerous studies of school desegregation. "It's very hypocritical of them to spotlight the problem and at the same time oppose all the right solutions."

'More Dollars' Needed

According to Mr. Orfield, a study that he conducted last year "clearly indicated" that students in Chicago's predominantly minority schools receive an education inferior to that offered to students in the city's predominantly white suburbs.

"So there's a real problem," he said. "The obvious solutions are either to provide more dollars and resources to all the students, or to transfer students out of the inferior schools to those that are better off. [The Administration] is opposed to both."

Other public-school officials also questioned the premises of the Justice Department initiative.

"I don't think that [the deliberate downgrading of curricula] is prevalent at all. In fact, I think the situation is to the contrary," said Arthur Jefferson, general superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools.

"In the last few years, there's been a great thrust in exactly the opposite direction," he said. "All the districts that I am familiar with have been stressing tougher educational programs, not weaker course content. I find it surprising that, at a time when people outside education are all calling for higher standards, anyone would allege that there's some sinister plot to water down standards."

Mr. Jefferson added that in his district and in others, officials are concerned not about making curricula easier for students "but rather about providing a safety net for students who will fall by the wayside" as a result of higher standards.

"It should be noted that the federal government has not been fulfilling its responsibilities in this regard," he said.

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