School & District Management

Education in Focus for U.S. Civil Rights Commission

By Michelle R. Davis — January 04, 2005 5 min read

The incoming chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Gerald A. Reynolds, says that under his leadership, the federal advisory panel will increase its focus on education issues.

Mr. Reynolds will replace Mary Frances Berry, the combative longtime head of the commission who had criticized President Bush’s record on civil rights.

Ms. Berry, 66, stepped down last month after the president declined to reappoint her to a new six-year term.

Mr. Reynolds was nominated in 2001 by President Bush as the assistant secretary for the Department of Education’s office for civil rights, but he was never confirmed, amid controversy over his views on affirmative action. He served until 2003 in the post under a recess appointment.

In an interview last month, Mr. Reynolds said he plans to continue to examine school issues in his new post, though the eight-member Civil Rights Commission, created under the Civil Rights Act of 1957, has no regulatory or enforcement power.

“It’s a bully pulpit, a platform for focusing attention on a particular set of problems,” he said. “There will be a significant increase and more attention paid to educational issues.”

Mr. Reynolds, 41, cited closing racial gaps in student achievement and examining whether schools are improperly placing black and Latino students in special education as two areas to investigate. Both are subjects he examined at while at the Education Department.

“There is a consensus on reorienting the organization so there is a greater emphasis placed on education issues,” he said.

In addition to naming Mr. Reynolds to a six-year term as the chairman of the commission on Dec. 6, President Bush named Kenneth L. Marcus as the panel’s staff director. Since Mr. Reynolds’ departure from the OCR in 2003, Mr. Marcus led the civil rights office in an acting capacity, with the title of “delegated the authority of the assistant secretary for civil rights.” (“Title of Federal Civil Rights Official Questioned,” April 21, 2004.)

“There’s no question that some of the most important civil rights issues today are in the field of education,” Mr. Marcus said.

President Bush also elevated commission member Abigail Thernstrom to the position of vice chairwoman. Ms. Thernstrom is a scholar who has studied achievement gaps and, like Mr. Reynolds, has voiced the view that racial preferences in education have been divisive and unproductive.

Power and Rights

Under the leadership of Ms. Berry, who was first appointed to the commission by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, the panel wrote several reports critical of President Bush’s education efforts, particularly the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for increased testing and accountability and mandates penalties for schools that don’t meet annual goals.

Commission’s New Lineup
Below are members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, including their political affiliations and regular jobs. The commissioners serve six-year terms.
Gerald A. Reynolds
(Republican)*
Commission chairperson
Assistant general counsel, Great Plains Energy Inc., Kansas City, Mo.
Abigail Thernstrom
(Independent)**
Commission vice chairperson
Senior fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, New York City
Jennifer C. Braceras (R)*
Suffolk University Law School professor, Boston
Christopher Edley Jr. (Democrat)**
Harvard Law School professor and founding co-director, Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Peter N. Kirsanow (R)*
Partner, Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan, and Aronoff law firm, Cleveland
Elsie M. Meeks (D)**
Executive director, Lakota Fund, Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D.
Ashley L. Taylor Jr. (R)*
Partner, Troutman Sanders law firm, Richmond, Va.
Russell G. Redenbaugh (I)**
Investment manager and co-founder, Kairos Inc., Philadelphia
*Presidential appointees
**Congressional appointees
SOURCE: U.S. Civil Rights Commission

One recent draft report called the education law flawed in its ability to close achievement gaps and blasted the president over his stance on affirmative action and for actions by the department’s civil rights office.

The commission itself never approved the report, but its public release in draft form attracted attention during the presidential campaign. Some say it was the last straw for Mr. Bush when it came to Ms. Berry, who classifies herself a political independent and also works as a professor of American social thought at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Reynolds brings a history of clashes with traditional civil rights groups to the table. His nomination to lead the OCR was greeted by an outcry from such groups, in particular about his anti-affirmative-action stance.

Mr. Reynolds, a lawyer, left the OCR and served a stint at the Department of Justice before landing at Great Plains Energy Co. in Kansas City, Mo., where he is assistant general counsel—a job he will keep in addition to his part-time chairman duties at the Civil Rights Commission.

“Our experience with him at the Department of Education gave us serious concerns about his commitment to progressive enforcement of civil rights laws,” said Jocelyn Samuels, the vice president of the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center.

At the OCR, Mr. Reynolds presided over a review of the department’s legal guidance on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs. The review was focused on Title IX issues in athletics. The department ultimately made no changes to its regulations. However, the OCR did move to ease Title IX regulations to open the door for public schools to offer single-sex education programs. Under Mr. Reynolds, the OCR also opposed the use of race as a factor in college admissions, though the practice was upheld in principle by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2003 rulings in cases from the University of Michigan.

Mr. Reynolds’ appointment as chairman is “the final destruction of the Civil Rights Commission as an agency with some independence and integrity,” asserted William L. Taylor, the chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a private group in Washington that monitors the federal government on civil rights issues. “Mr. Reynolds demonstrated when he was at the Department of Education that he had very little sympathy for the rights of people protected by the law.”

But Roger Clegg, the general counsel of the Sterling, Va.-based Center for Equal Opportunity, a think tank that addresses race and ethnicity issues, said the appointment is a turning point for the better for the federal panel.

The choice “represents not only a philosophical change, but a generational change,” Mr. Clegg said. “Gerry is younger and can look at issues with a fresh perspective from 2004, not 1954 or 1964.”

Mr. Reynolds said that he looks forward to working with traditional civil rights groups and that he welcomes their “thoughtful criticism.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Education in Focus for U.S. Civil Rights Commission

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