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Advocate Brings a New Focus to Civil-Rights Office

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WASHINGTON--The swearing-in last month of a longtime civil-rights lawyer as head of the Education Department's office for civil rights symbolizes what many predict will be dramatic policy differences between the Clinton Administration and its two most recent Republican predecessors.

Norma V. Cantu, who had been a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, is the first veteran of a civil-rights advocacy group to head the O.C.R in 13 years.

Similarly, President Clinton chose Lani Guinier, a voting-rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, to be assistant attorney general for civil rights--the other top post overseeing civil-rights issues in education. Although Mr. Clinton withdrew that controversial nomination, most observers expect him to pick another nominee with an advocacy background for the Justice Department post.

"I think it is a healthy development to have people in the civil-rights positions who have spent a good part of their professional careers doing civil-rights work and are knowledgeable about civil-rights policy and civil-rights litigation,'' said William L. Taylor, a school-desegregation lawyer who is the vice chairman of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights.

"We're looking forward to an increase in plain old enforcement, as well as some shifts in policy,'' he said.

In an interview last week, Ms. Cantu said she hopes to meet those expectations. While she said she had not mapped out her agenda as the assistant secretary for civil rights, she hinted that the O.C.R. would issue some new regulations and that she would like to see the federal government get involved in school-finance-equity issues.

While Ms. Cantu acknowledged that the Administration's budget calls for increasing the O.C.R.'s funding only marginally and would actually cut its staff slightly, she maintained that she will have something more important to work with.

"What we have going for us is a supportive Administration in the area of civil rights,'' Ms. Cantu said.

Battles To Come?

But the firestorm over the nomination of Ms. Guinier--who was criticized for some of the measures she espoused for enhancing the clout of minority voters--could foreshadow further battles over the direction of civil-rights enforcement.

And while Ms. Cantu was confirmed without difficulty, she, too, has faced some of the criticism that dogged the Justice Department nominee.

"The appointments of Ms. Cantu and Ms. Guinier would place the powerful federal civil-rights arsenal in the hands of ideologues,'' Clint Bolick, a former Reagan Administration official, wrote in an April 30 Wall Street Journal commentary headlined "Clinton's Quota Queens.''

The appointments "also would blur the lines between advocacy groups and government agencies,'' argued Mr. Bolick, who is the litigation director at the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm.

Some civil-rights groups, however, fear the Guinier debacle will make the Administration gun-shy on rights issues.

"I admire [Ms. Cantu] no end for her courage in taking this [job] on,'' said Phyllis C. McClure, the director of education programs for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. But, she added, "Is she going to have the freedom to start making waves?''

Even her critics, meanwhile, concede that Ms. Cantu possesses formidable qualifications for the job.

"She is a very well-respected lawyer,'' said Allyson M. Tucker, the manager of the center for educational policy at the Heritage Foundation.

"My complaint with her would be that, in a lot of cases, she promotes special opportunities for minority kids, as opposed to giving kids equal opportunities,'' Ms. Tucker said. "She goes beyond equality of opportunity to equality of results.''

Involved in Finance Suit

While at MALDEF's office in San Antonio, Ms. Cantu was involved in the lawsuit by property-poor school districts that led to a judicial ruling that the Texas school-finance system violated the state constitution.

Does her background indicate that the Clinton Administration may pursue finance equity as a civil-rights issue? Ms. Cantu indicated last week that she would approve of such a policy, but noted that it would require a legislative extension of her office's authority--and in the federal government's sphere of influence.

"In a federal role, any proper solution would require action by Congress,'' she said. "If they would want to do it, I would be excited.''

In her career as a lawyer, Ms. Cantu has also argued for bilingual instruction for limited-English-proficient children, sought to improve immigrant and migrant children's access to education, and worked on a suit charging Texas with shortchanging colleges near the Mexican border.

Desegregation a Specialty

But Ms. Cantu's specialty was representing Hispanic groups in school-desegregation actions.

In one such case, Ms. Cantu argued unsuccessfully that the Austin, Tex., schools not be freed from a desegregation order until residential integration was achieved.

Given her record, Ms. Cantu's appointment could signal a new activism by the executive branch on desegregation issues. The Bush and Reagan administrations brought few new school-desegregation cases, and the Reagan Justice Department actively sought to get districts released from desegregation orders.

While the Justice Department handles most civil-rights litigation, the O.C.R. investigates complaints, initiates compliance reviews, and refers cases to Justice when they are not settled administratively.

"Staff have told me some stories about how in previous administrations, civil rights had not been dealt with in a serious manner,'' Ms. Cantu said last week. "The old Administration had a Department of Justice that wouldn't bring lawsuits.''

However, Ms. Cantu had no specific answer to the question of how she intends to beef up the O.C.R.'s efforts without more money or staff.

While civil-rights groups were often at odds with her predecessor, Michael L. Williams, they agreed with his assertion that the agency needs more resources to manage an escalating number of complaints while also initiating other investigations. (See Education Week, Jan. 13, 1993.)

But Ms. Cantu said a lack of resources "doesn't explain the lack of activity'' under her predecessors. For example, she said, previous O.C.R. chiefs "failed to use the bully pulpit as an advocate for students.''

She also noted that the agency had issued few new regulations. While she declined to say which policy areas such rules might focus on, she asserted that rules regarding L.E.P. children had been "killed internally'' by the Bush Administration.

And Ms. Cantu rejected the suggestion by some observers that the O.C.R. seek to limit disability-related complaints, which now make up about two-thirds of its caseload.

'Use All the Tools'

Ms. Cantu said more assertive enforcement would not necessarily mean that the O.C.R. would move to cut off funding to offending schools. She noted that the O.C.R. has a range of options, including technical assistance, or putting a district "on a kind of probationary status.''

"We're going to see a new day where we use all the tools available,'' she said.

The first sign of a shift in the O.C.R.'s direction, meanwhile, is likely to come in new rules on minority scholarships. Ms. Cantu said the Administration would reverse the policy forged by Mr. Williams, which stated that race-specific scholarships violate civil-rights law unless they are aimed at reversing past bias.

"It's acceptable to use financial aid for affirmative action,'' she said.

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