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Scored for Slow Pace, O.C.R. Plans 40 Compliance Reviews

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Washington--The Education Department's office for civil rights plans to conduct 40 compliance reviews at schools and colleges in the current fiscal year, with 25 initiated by mid-May, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Michael L. Williams told a Senate committee May 17.

Five of the probes under way involve ability grouping, while the rest deal with such issues as bilingual education, treatment of pregnant students, and athletic programs, according to ocr data.

But a General Accounting Office official said that while new Education Department efforts to examine schools' ability-grouping practices and other activities "are steps in the right direction," the ocr has a long way to go.

Senator Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, who presided at the Labor and Human Resources Committee hearing, attacked the ocr's record on compliance reviews, or agency-initiated investigations of school districts, terming the low number undertaken thus far "a tragedy."

While racially segregated schools were once at issue, Mr. Simon said, today's problems include "a different kind of segregation, a segregation perhaps even more damaging ... the labeling of children as 'slow' or 'dumb' by placing them in particular classrooms."

More than half the nation's school districts have racially identifiable classes, and the ocr's own data8show that minority students are disproportionately assigned to low-ability and special-education classes, said Franklin Frazier, the gao's director of education and employment issues.

In addition, he said, data from a Johns Hopkins University study of middle schools show that "about 10 percent, or 1,700, of the nation's middle schools ability-group students in a possibly discriminatory manner."

But the ocr has conducted only one compliance review related to ability grouping or tracking since 1985, Mr. Frazier said, despite a legal mandate to investigate when it has "information of possible noncompliance" with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids racial discrimination in federally funded programs.

Mr. Frazier's testimony reiterated initial gao findings released in late April, when the hearing was first called and then postponed. (See Education Week, May 1, 1991.)

Allegations about the low number of compliance reviews "would disturb me if that's where the story would end," Mr. Williams said in announcing the ocr's plans to conduct 40 compliance reviews by the end of fiscal 1991 on Sept. 30.

According to a list he provided, probes under way by May 15 involved 19 schools or school districts and 6 universities.

Mr. Williams noted that the ocr's resources for compliance reviews are limited, and argued that the "ocr's primary activity is, and always has been, investigation of complaints."

"Complaint receipts now exceed any level in the agency's history," he added.

Mr. Williams also noted that his enforcement strategy calls for issuing guidance on tracking and other "priority" issues. But the gao recommended that the Education Department issue formal regulations "identifying procedures schools should use" as well as drafting internal ocr policies specifying "appropriate procedures to use in investigating and resolving in-school discrimination cases."

The gao report suggested that the lack of regulations and inconsistent enforcement practices may have confused educators about what practices are permissible. The report said that some investigators permitted practices that other probes characterized as civil-rights violations.

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