Washington--The staff director of the new U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said last week that the panel’s expected reassessment of longstanding policies on remedies for discrimination does not mean it is becoming a “mouthpiece” for the Reagan Administration.
In a Jan. 4 memorandum to the commissioners, the staff director, Linda Chavez, recommended that the panel initiate or continue programs to investigate the possible negative effects of affirmative action, student busing for desegregation purposes, and bilingual education. (Excerpts from the memorandum appear on page 11.)
Several major civil-rights organizations have strongly criticized the memo, saying that its adoption would lead to the destruction of 25 years of progress in civil rights.
One of the commission’s professional staff members said: “Any hope that the new commission will be independent dies a little bit more every day.”
But in an interview last week, Ms. Chavez, an Administration appointee who has been with the panel since August, said that the fact-finding agency “must begin to ask these troubling questions.”
“I know that there is a fear among our staff and the rights organizations that the commissioners already know what sort of answers they want to hear,” said Ms. Chavez, a former assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker. “But this is not an accurate portrayal. The outcomes of the projects I’ve proposed aren’t planned or pre-ordained. I don’t know the answers to these troubling questions.”
Early this week, the newly reconstructed commission was scheduled to hold its first meeting, during which it planned to act on Ms. Chavez’s recommendations.
In her memo, the staff director called for the cancellation of three projects commissioned by the old panel, including a study of the effects of student financial-aid cutbacks on blacks and Hispanics.
“Inherent in the design of this project is an assumption that equal educational opportunity does not simply entail nondiscrimination in college admissions,” Ms. Chavez wrote. “Unless the commission wishes to establish that federal student financial aid is a civil right guaranteed to members of minority groups, this project would appear clearly beyond our jurisdiction.”
Ms. Chavez also suggested that the panel continue a study on voluntary methods of school desegregation, adding that such a report “could set the stage” for the commission’s reassessment of mandatory student busing. A related study on the segregation of Hispanic students, she suggested, should give special emphasis “to the possible role of programs such as bilingual education in the increasing isolation” of this group in schools.
The staff director also suggested that the commission undertake “a major study” of the effects of affirmative-action efforts in higher education, noting that the introduction of affirmative-action programs coincided with a decline in academic standards in colleges and universities.
In a separate part of the memo, Ms. Chavez recommended the cancellation of an ongoing employment study on Americans of Eastern and Southern European ancestry for failing, among other things, to address the “adverse consequences of affirmative action.” She added: The redesign of that study should be “one of our highest priorities for the year.”
Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, strongly criticized Ms. Chavez’s memo, saying that it “reads like the civil-rights agenda of the radical right.”
“Regrettably, what Congress and the civil-rights community feared may soon be happening,” he said. “Rather than being an independent watchdog for the public, it appears that the commission can soon become a mouthpiece for the Reagan Administration.”
Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, characterized the memo as “a dastardly attempt ... to recast the focus of the commission and make it a mouthpiece of the Administration.”
“If Ms. Chavez’s memo becomes policy, then the original purpose of the commission will have been de-stroyed,” he warned.
Ms. Chavez countered that her recommendations, if adopted, would not represent “a major shift in commission policy,” adding that she has “never been a mouthpiece for anyone.”
“The commission will continue to be interested in discrimination, will continue to vigorously study whether anti-discrimination laws are being enforced, and will study and report on areas where discrimination persists,” Ms. Chavez said. “This is not a shift away from traditional interests.”
But, she added, the commission will most likely reassess policies “as they relate to remedies, such as racial quotas and busing.”
“This is something that everyone has known since the new commissioners were named, that their views are inconsistent with the views of the previous commissioners,” she said. “How it will shake out in the end, no one knows.”
Ms. Chavez also said she “did not hold a single discussion with anyone in the White House or anywhere else in the Administration” regarding the content of her memo.
She said she “certainly was not forced by the Administration” to select Mark R. Disler--an aide for 15 months to William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights--as the commission’s general counsel.
At least one of the commission’s professional staff members took exception with Ms. Chavez’s defense.
“The feeling here is that she’s working in concert with the Administration; her recommendations are so in tune with theirs [that] it’s hard to believe otherwise,” the staff member said. “And her selection of Mark Disler for general counsel seems to have come right out of Reynolds’s office.”
“Morale here is pretty low and a lot of people are looking for new jobs,” the staff member continued. “But the question is, where do you go in this Administration after having worked for the civil-rights commission?”
The staff member said that some of the commission’s lawyers have taken jobs with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “because there’s a feeling that” Clarence Thomas, the agency’s chief and a former director of the Education Department’s office for civil rights, “has some credibility.”
Ms. Chavez acknowledged that staff morale is low. She attributed the decline to “uncertainty about the commission’s future during the past several months” and confirmed that she plans to reorganize the commission’s professional staff.
“People have known that I’ve planned to reorganize since the day I came in,” Ms. Chavez said. “I want to sharpen up the way the commission is organized, the way that the staff handles its responsibilities.’'
She added that she has “no intention of restaffing the commission with ideologues.”
“I don’t need to be surrounded by ‘yes men,”’ Ms. Chavez explained. “I’m looking for professionalism, for people whose minds are open. One of my main criticisms of the old commission is that its staff was too ideological. There are a lot of people here whom I may disagree with but whose work I respect. I hope they’ll give me and the new commissioners a chance.”
The new commission was created last November following a long and bitter struggle between the Congress and the White House over President Reagan’s attempt to replace three incumbent commissioners with people whose views on civil rights were reported to be more compatible with his own. A majority of the former commission’s six members had repeatedly criticized the President’s rights policies, particularly as they pertained to education.
Shortly before adjourning last year, the Congress apparently settled its dispute with the President over the panel by expanding its membership to eight and by splitting responsibility for selecting commissioners between Democratic and Republican leaders in the Congress and the White House.
The Democrats and representatives of several civil-rights groups said that implicit in this arrangement was an agreement that all but one of the six original commissioners would be appointed to the new panel. But the President and his Republican supporters in the Congress said no such understanding existed, and together they appointed six new commissioners whose positions on civil rights are said to be similar to Mr. Reagan’s. (See Education Week, Dec. 21, 1983.)
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 1984 edition of Education Week as Rights-Panel Memo Said Not To Mark Shift in Policy