“We have not managed OCR as effectively as we should have,” Acting Assistant Secretary William L. Smith told the House Education and Labor Committee.
While Reagan Administration officials steadfastly maintained that criticism of the OCR was unjustified, Mr. Smith testified that efforts to enforce civil-rights statutes during the 1980’s had been hampered by rapid staff turnover, as well as federal judicial mandates the Administration repeatedly complained about.
Mr. Smith said he has undertaken comprehensive reviews of the performance of the OCR’s regional and national offices since being appointed in March and hopes to make better use of existing resources. He promised to submit a report to the committee by Jan. 15.
But he said also that he stands behind the current Administration’s record in civil rights cases.
“I know that the office for civil rights is doing an effective job of enforcing the statutes and regulations it is charged with enforcing,” he told skeptical and often hostile committee members.
James P. Turner, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil-rights division, echoed Mr. Smith in his testimony. ''I can report to you that the civil-rights division today is maintaining an active and effective program of enforcement,” he said.
However, committee members primarily focused on the OCR’s performance, citing a report issued last year by the panel’s Democratic staff that alleged serious shortfalls in the office’s handling of civil-right complaints during the Reagan years.
The committee’s chairman, Augustus F. Hawkins, said he is not convinced that Mr. Smith has wrought major improvements.
“You’re not, and you know it as well as I do, enforcing the civil-rights laws as they ought to be enforced,” the California Democrat snapped at the OCR director.
“You seem to be very proud of your record,” Mr. Hawkins continued. “You seem to be the only one who is proud of it.”
The committee chairman later apologized for the harshness of his remarks, adding that they were not directed at Mr. Smith personally.
In addition to leading the general criticism, Mr. Hawkins questioned the OCR’s actions in approving applications for magnet-schools grants that were awarded in August. The agency is charged with certifying that applicant school districts have appropriate desegregation plans in place and that there are no outstanding civil-rights complaints against them.
Mr. Hawkins charged that the OCR approved an application by the West Palm Beach, Fla., schools even though there was an outstanding violation.
In response, Mr. Smith acknowledged that a complaint against the district is being investigated and conceded that Mr. Hawkins "[has] an argument.” But he said OCR did not issue a “letter of finding"--a notice to the district that the agency has found a probable violation--until after the grant application was filed.
“As far as we were concerned,” Mr. Smith said, “West Palm Beach was still eligible.”
Most of the panel’s criticism centered on allegations, raised in its 1988 report, that the OCR had been lax in enforcing race- and sex-discrimination statutes, and in some cases had encouraged complainants to drop or narrow the scope of complaints.
The report charged that there “was a clear perception among the regional-office staff that certain issues were ‘off limits’ and could not be investigated ... unless there were horror stories--facts of such egregiousness that a finding other than discrimination was not possible.” (See Education Week, March 1, 1989.)
Mr. Smith countered that he has not seen evidence that employees encouraged complainants to drop charges. But he also acknowledged that he had done nothing after the allegations were aired to inform regional-office staff that such practices are not in accord with OCR policy.
The staff report also contended that OCR actions had demonstrated a pattern of emphasizing disability-bias cases over other civil-rights actions.
Mr. Smith claimed that the office’s ability to pursue civil-rights cases had been hampered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Grove City v. Bell, which effectively restricted the application of civil-rights laws to individual programs supported by federal funds, rather than to entire school districts.
James Littlejohn, director of the OCR’s policy development division, said that there simply were more disability cases filed and that Grove City had made it much easier to pursue them than other kinds of cases.
The judicial ruling was nullified by Congressional action last year.
Attrition has whittled down the OCR’s staff so much, Mr. Smith testified, that “we are not developing, as quickly as we would like, the skills of the people we need to carry out our important mission during the 1990’s.”
He told committee members that the office “may lose upwards of 10 to 12 to 15 people a month.”
He blamed case-processing timeframes mandated in the Adams v. Bennett case for exacerbating the turnover problem. “The truth of the matter is, it’s killing us,” he said.
The OCR has lost 482 of its slightly more than 800 employees over the past four years. Many of those who left, Mr. Smith said, were veteran employees, leaving a deficit in experience and a lack of skilled personnel to train new employees.
Mr. Littlejohn also argued that the Adams timeframes have kept the OCR from filing complex cases.
But Phyllis McClure, director of the division of policy and information for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argued that the rapid turnover was more likely caused by dissatisfaction among dedicated employees than by a taxing workload.
And Elliot Lichtman, a civil-rights lawyer who argued the Adams case for the NAACP Fund, noted that the courts did not forbid the OCR from seeking to adjust the timeframes, even before the case was dismissed in 1988.
Committee members also questioned the Administration’s commitment to the OCR’s mission, pointing out that the assistant secretary’s post has been vacant almost a year.
Asked Representative Charles A. Hayes, Democrat of Illinois, “Did it ever occur to you that the absense of a permanent [assistant] secretary might indicate a de-emphasis” on civil-rights enforcement?
Mr. Smith responded that the nationwide search undertaken by the White House to fill the position indicates that President Bush takes the matter “very, very seriously.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 1989 edition of Education Week as O.C.R. Director Admits Laxness In Enforcement