O.C.R. Stepping Up Civil-Rights Enforcement

By Mark Pitsch — November 09, 1994 5 min read
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In September 1993, after months of negotiation, the Education Department’s office for civil rights issued a stern warning to a Louisiana school board: Provide a “free, appropriate public education” to a student with attention-deficit disorder or lose federal funding.

That funding represents about 10 percent of the Livingston Parish district’s budget, and officials there quickly agreed to meet the student’s and the O.C.R.'s requests.

“‘Threatened’ is a good word” to describe the feelings of district officials, said Superintendent J. Rogers Pope. “‘Intimidated’ is probably even better. We couldn’t afford losing that money.”

The letter to the Livingston Parish school board has been just one of several threats to cut off funds issued by the O.C.R. under the Clinton Administration and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Norma V. Cantu, who took office in May of last year.

Civil-rights advocates point to the willingness of the O.C.R. to issue such an ultimatum to schools as a “sea change” in enforcement aggressiveness from the Reagan and Bush administrations, which shied away from such threats. Indeed, only one such letter was issued under those administrations--to a district that refused to give the O.C.R. access to its records.

“Very clearly, there is a commitment to enforce civil rights that was ambiguous at best during the Bush and Reagan years,” said Peter Roos, a co-director of the San Francisco-based public-interest law firm Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc.

Aggressive or Intrusive?

But advocates also say the office’s record is still far from ideal.

“You hear things that O.C.R. doesn’t have the clout within the department that you would like it to have,” Mr. Roos said.

A civil-rights advocate said, “I just don’t think civil rights as we’ve known it is a serious agenda item for this Administration.”

Meanwhile, conservative advocates and school lawyers contend that the office under Ms. Cantu has been too intrusive, and that it does not solicit opinions from practitioners who are most directly affected by civil-rights laws.

“At the top, there seems to be a disinterest in working with us about where they’re going and trying to prevent problems before going ahead and doing an investigation,” said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association. “It’s unfortunate,” she said, adding that “we’re not enemies.”

For her part, Ms. Cantu said in an interview that the O.C.R. is trying to promote educational access and excellence for all students.

“There is a very concerted effort to coordinate activities within the department to make possible a systemic approach to reform,” the assistant secretary said. “The twin goals of quality and equality are not mutually exclusive. Pursuing inequality without being concerned about school reform doesn’t serve children well.”

In doing so, she said, the O.C.R. is taking a “systemic approach” to cases rather than focusing on “a child at a time.”

This approach, which advocates have been demanding for years, represents a significant change from earlier administrations.

Illinois Cases

In one closely watched case, for example, the O.C.R.'s regional office in Chicago secured an agreement from the Chicago school system and the Illinois board of education earlier this year to provide an adequate education for students with disabilities.

Rather than focusing on two schools that were the target of a complaint, the O.C.R. investigated nine schools, as well as the city and state systems. More than 16,000 students were affected, Ms. Cantu said.

The Chicago office also investigated Ohio’s high-school-graduation test this year to determine whether black students were prepared to take the exam. The O.C.R. did not find the test biased. But it secured a commitment from Ohio officials to insure that all students received adequate preparation.

Civil-rights advocates said the probe sent a strong message to states engaged in high-stakes testing that they must pay attention to the quality of schooling--and that they will be held accountable.

“We’re catching up with the large, pent-up demand for enforcement of civil rights,” Ms. Cantu said.

And there is evidence of a new direction. In addition to issuing more threats to revoke federal funding from noncompliant districts and colleges, the O.C.R. is also sending cases to the Justice Department for legal action.

Within the last year, the O.C.R. has referred two cases for enforcement, a Justice Department source said--something the previous administrations rarely did.

“That’s pretty much equal to or more than in the previous years” combined, the source said.

Compliance Reviews

The O.C.R. also has increased compliance reviews, investigations initiated voluntarily, without an underlying complaint. In fiscal 1991, the O.C.R. conducted 41 such reviews. In fiscal 1992, it conducted 77, for a total of 118 over the two-year period. In the first 19 months of the Clinton Administration, the O.C.R. began 240 reviews.

“The objective evidence would show weak compliance-review enforcement by the previous Administration,” Ms. Cantu said.

But Michael L. Williams, Ms. Cantu’s predecessor under President George Bush, said that her efforts “are building from the platform we established.”

The agency “is a better organization than it was when we left,” said Mr. Williams, who is now in private law practice in Fort Worth. “But it ought to be; it improves over time, and it would be better if we were still there.”

Mr. Williams noted that the O.C.R.'s stated priorities--overinclusion of minorities in special education, access for limited-English-proficient students, testing and admissions bias, and underrepresentation of women and minorities in mathematics and science--are similar to those he set.

Furthermore, he said, the office’s new complaint-resolution manual, announced last December, simply formalizes what had been the policy for some time--that efforts should be made to resolve complaints before schools are found in violation.

“If we would’ve tried to do that, the interest groups would’ve pitched a fit,” he said.

Some observers agree with Mr. Williams. A Democratic Congressional aide said it is unclear whether the O.C.R. is doing more than in the past.

“The O.C.R. is out there pumping themselves a little too early,” said the aide.

Some observers say regional offices have too much flexibility.

Linda Purrington, a co-founder of the Petaluma, Calif.-based Parents for Title IX, an organization monitoring the O.C.R.'s investigation of gender-equity cases, said the enforcement guidelines have led some investigators to “bargain away issues of fact.”

“The O.C.R. has never taken away money from school districts for noncompliance,” she noted.

Ms. Cantu said that the O.C.R. is prepared to do that, but its “real objective is to bring schools into compliance.”

“A number of school districts have found themselves on the brink of being defunded,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 1994 edition of Education Week as O.C.R. Stepping Up Civil-Rights Enforcement


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