Williams Charts A New Agenda For Rights Office

By Julie A. Miller — September 05, 1990 10 min read

“We live now in times of extremely limited resources,” Mr. Williams said. “I will attempt to target those resources to what I see as the educational equity issues of the time.”

Michael L. Williams, the Education Department’s new assistant secretary for civil rights, has announced that he plans to focus the agency’s attention on issues that civil-rights advocates contend were considered “off limits” under the Reagan Administration.

Mr. Williams said the office for civil rights will focus compliance reviews--probes initiated by the agency without a specific complaint--on ability grouping, the treatment of children whose native language is not English, schools’ policies toward pregnant teenagers, and racial harassment on college campuses.

“They’re the educational equity issues of the 90s,” Mr. Williams said in a wide-ranging session with reporters last month. “Does that mean there’s a new breeze blowing? I don’t know.”

“I believe very strongly in George Bush, and I believe the President would want me to tackle the issues that are out there,” he said, adding, “I didn’t ask anybody’s permission.”

“I don’t have any way of knowing if there were off-limits issues in the past,” Mr. Williams said.

He said he planned to unveil next month a “national enforcement strategy,” further detailing his agenda for the OCR. The unprecedented document will outline his view of the agency’s enforcement role, his priorities, and how the OCR will divide its resources among its responsibilities.

Advocates have been particularly vocal in urging the OCR to investigate a range of issues related to ability grouping--including academic tracking, the disproportionate placement of minority children in special education, unequal application of discipline, and access to programs for gifted children.

“Reportedly, the national office would not approve of the investigation of such cases unless there were ‘horror stories,’ facts of such egregiousness that a finding other than discrimination was not possible,” stated a 1988 report by the House Education and Labor Committee’s Democratic staff members. The scathing report was based on interviews with OCR employees.

Mr. Williams said he is reconsidering many Reagan-era policies that were sharply criticized in that report and by civil-rights groups.

For example, he promised to disseminate information on OCR policies and activities, a significant change for an agency with a reputation for keeping its lid on tight.

According to the committee report, OCR lawyers said that they often avoided asking for guidance from agency officials, fearing “an unreasonably restrictive interpretation of the law,” and that policy decisions often were not put in writing so that they could not be challenged.

Mr. Williams said he is also considering installing a hot line to make it easier to obtain policy documents, and he urged reporters to call him and his top aides, promising “straight answers.” In the past, most documents had to be requested through the Freedom of Information Act, and OCR officials were almost never interviewed.

He said he is looking forward to “being part of the ‘roast-beef circuit,’ provided I get invited.”

Policies Under Review

Publicly stated policies are also under review, including the controversial practice of closing many complaint investigations with “letters of finding” stating that a violation has been corrected, rather than officially finding a violation before negotiating compliance.

Advocates charge that the OCR has accepted inadequate settlements and failed to monitor their implementation, and they argue that violators are undeterred by such an outcome.

Mr. Williams said he will not do away with the pre-finding settlement option, as the agency “should have as many tools as possible.” However, he said, he will issue “firm guidelines” detailing when the option may be exercised.

He said such settlements would not be allowed in cases where a college or school district merely promises to comply, as has been done in the past.

Mr. Williams said he is also likely to modify the OCR’s policy of adhering to court-ordered time limits that the agency has voluntarily followed since the underlying lawsuit was dismissed.

The limits on the amount of time the OCR could take to investigate and process complaints were ordered in 1977, in response to complaints of foot-dragging by the agency. The longstanding lawsuit that spurred the timelines, then known as Adams v. Bennett, was dismissed in 1987, and the dismissal was recently upheld. (See Education Week, Aug. 1, 1990.)

Civil-rights advocates have argued that the OCR will sit on its hands without the discipline of timelines, but they have also complained that the need to meet the deadlines has spurred agency officials to dismiss or narrow legitimate complaints.

Mr. Williams said he recognizes that the timelines had both positive and negative effects.

“They forced the agency to get its house in order,” and it “developed internal controls it didn’t have,” he said. “On the negative side, the focus became satisfying the timelines.”

“Nobody tells a street cop, ‘You have to do your murder case in 60 days,’ but I do recognize that investigations that take 28 months do create a level of frustration,” Mr. Williams said.

Desegregation Issues

In addition, Mr. Williams said, he is reconsidering the OCR’s policy barring compliance reviews of school districts undergoing court-ordered desegregation.

Civil-rights advocates have sharply criticized the OCR’s decision to discontinue its oversight of many systems based on their having put into place recruitment and retention programs for minority students promised in their desegregation plans--rather than their success in desegregating their student populations.

One disputed policy that is less likely to change, Mr. Williams said, is the one governing the agency’s biannual survey of school districts, which gathers statistics on placement and discipline as well as demographic characteristics.

Education and civil-rights groups protested a 1984 decision to discontinue a selection process that sampled every district with more than 300 students at least once every six years in favor of a system that resulted in some not being sampled at all.

In 1988, the agency made an effort to include more districts that had not been sampled recently, but a survey by Education Week indicated that thousands were still being bypassed. (See Education Week, June 1, 1988.)

While his predecessors defended the survey design as the one that best met the agency’s needs, Mr. Williams agreed that a more universal survey would be preferable and that the questions must be updated. The issue, he said, is money.

“It may be the best kind of survey we could get, but it has to compare with other things,” he said. “I’m not convinced at this moment, that in light of everything else we have to pay for, it’s the best expenditure.”

Priorities Applauded

Civil-rights advocates generally praised Mr. Williams’s stated priorities. But, while they applauded what they agreed was a change in attitude, several advocates said they would maintain a wait-and-see position.

“Any time someone comes in, they tend to make a lot of promises,” said Suzanne Ramos, a legislative lawyer for the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund. “We’ll see if he is able to keep those promises. Who knows how much latitude he has?”

“But I am optimistic,” she added. “He at least seems to be receptive to our concerns.”

Some advocates note with particular approval Mr. Williams’s background in civil-rights enforcement--evident, for example, in his repeated emphasis on the OCR’s mission as a “law-enforcement agency.”

The shelves behind his desk hold a collection of rest-stop souvenir-shop plates with state maps printed on them--one for each civil-rights case he has tried.

“Hunters keep big game on their walls; I keep people,” he said, matching people to plates: white supremacists who amassed illegal arms and burned black families’ homes, and police officers who beat suspects.

The plates’ presence symbolizes the difference between Mr. Williams and his Reagan Administration predecessors. Two of his predecessors were Congressional aides with no experience in civil-rights matters; the third was a Pennsylvania state official with Republican political credentials but no law degree.

While he avoided direct criticism of those predecessors, Mr. Williams acknowledged that the OCR is a troubled agency. He said he turned down the job the first time he was asked, but once he learned more about the OCR, he “got excited about what it does, what its mission is.”

“The opportunity to participate and make a difference meant more to me than the prospect of walking into an agency that is perceived to have a lot of problems,” he said.

A Budget in Flux

While some of the OCR’s problems have been attributed to policies viewed dimly by the Congress and the civil-rights community, others have been blamed on a mismatch between the agency’s workload and its budget.

That budget has fluctuated since the Education Department became a separate agency in 1980, peaking at about $49 million in fiscal years 1982 and 1984 and plunging to a low of $40.4 million in fiscal 1988. Its current budget is about $44.5 million.

Observers have said the relatively low appropriations were the result of two factors--the small requests made by the Administration and Congressional antipathy to the Administration’s civil-rights policy.

In addition, critics point to the fact that the agency failed to spend more than $12 million it had been appropriated between 1981 and 1987 as evidence of the low priority the Reagan Administration placed on the OCR’s work.

Officials say they have spent all money appropriated to the OCR since 1988, when the office was faced with responding to the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which broadened the scope of civil-rights laws narrowed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Grove City v. Bell. (See Education Week, March 30, 1988.)

The CRRA, passed over President Reagan’s veto, re-established the principle that schools and other institutions are entirely covered by anti-discrimination laws if they receive federal funds. For four years, the Grove City decision had limited the OCR’s jurisdiction to specific programs that received federal funding.

This meant that the agency had to devote a considerable amount of its resources to tracking funds, and had to dismiss many well-founded complaints for lack of jurisdiction.

But passage of the CRRA created other problems. Most important, the number of complaints the OCR received skyrocketed.

“If you look at the 15 months previous to enactment of the CRRA, you would probably only find one month in which the receipts were over 200,” said Frederick T. Cioffi, acting director of the OCR’s policy and enforcement service. “If you look at receipts from April 1988 to the present, you will find only two months where it has been under 200, and you will find several months where it was over 300.”

Refiled Complaints

The agency also decided to contact people who had made complaints that were closed for lack of jurisdiction to see if they were interested in reinstating them. About 800 such complaints were identified, and 527 of them were refiled.

Of those cases, 145 were dismissed after the OCR found no violation, and the agency has thus far obtained some sort of corrective action in 270.

Despite its increased load, the OCR continued to meet the Adams timelines 98 percent of the time, Mr. Cioffi said.

OCR officials acknowledge that the agency has experienced a particularly critical cash crisis in the past year, which resulted in decisions to curtail monitoring plans, eliminate staff training, institute a hiring freeze, virtually eliminate technical assistance to school districts, and defer some payments and surveys until the next fiscal year.

Compliance reviews dwindled from 264 in fiscal 1988 to 177 in fiscal 1989 and only 28 in the current fiscal year.

Mr. Williams acknowledges that budgetary constraints may be more difficult to remedy than those imposed by policy. While hinting that he may look for more money in coming years, he said that “without significant increases in complaints, we can live within our [present] budget.’'

He repeatedly referred to the need to prioritize the agency’s objectives in light of the resources available--as in his assessment of the civil-rights survey.

“We live now in times of extremely limited resources,” Mr. Williams said. “I will attempt to target those resources to what I see as the educational equity issues of the time.”