Bush Has Own View of Promoting Civil Rights

By Michelle R. Davis — October 19, 2004 9 min read
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As President Bush debated Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, his Democratic opponent for the White House, in their final campaign face-off last week, he told the audience, “Reading is the new civil right.”

It’s a line from his campaign stump speech, and it calls attention to the way Mr. Bush has sought to redefine the discussion of civil rights in education. Instead of focusing on racial integration in public schools, for instance, the president has emphasized the achievement gap between minority and white students. He has spoken of school choice as a basic right and eased federal restrictions on single-sex public education to provide another option for parents. In line with his support for religious communities, he has been attentive to discrimination based on faith.

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“He has certainly gone in a different direction with respect to civil rights,” said Roger Clegg, the general counsel for the Sterling, Va.-based Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that addresses issues of race and ethnicity. “He has a different civil rights focus.”

Critics of the administration take a different view.

“The Bush administration has a consistent anti-civil rights stance combined with a very frequent use of rhetoric that sounds like civil rights rhetoric,” Gary Orfield, a founding co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, said in an e-mail. “It’s actually an effort . . . that simply denies the need for any systemic remedies.”

For the administration, the effort to reshape civil rights in education began with the No Child Left Behind Act, the sweeping education law that was a priority for Mr. Bush when he took office in 2001. The law—an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in 1965—requires school test-score data to be broken down by race, among other factors.

The idea is to spotlight schools whose minority students aren’t keeping up with their peers and to prod those schools to improve achievement for all students or face sanctions.

“That’s new and revolutionary; … it’s a different way of looking at civil rights,” said Brian W. Jones, the U.S. Department of Education’s general counsel.

Even some groups critical of the Bush administration agree. William L. Taylor, the chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a private group in Washington that monitors the federal government’s progress on civil rights issues, said the No Child Left Behind law is a much-needed leap forward.

“I strongly believe that closing the achievement gap … is a major civil rights issue. It’s the way to get at discrimination in a new century,” Mr. Taylor said, adding that the federal school law “is an important civil rights tool.”

John H. Jackson, the national director of education for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, based in Baltimore, said the law’s goal of pushing schools to pay attention to the education progress of minority students is worthy. But without the resources to make the law work, he said, the administration’s agenda amounts to little more than public relations. He called for more funding under the law.

“It’s admirable that the administration laid out this requirement that all children must succeed across the board,” Mr. Jackson said. “But they also have an obligation to provide the substance to fulfill the goal.”

A Big Stick

While the Department of Justice’s civil rights division still plays a central role in long-running school desegregation cases, the Education Department’s office for civil rights, known as OCR, spearheads much of the federal government’s efforts when it comes to enforcing federal civil rights laws in public schools.

With 650 employees spread across its headquarters in Washington and 12 regional offices, the Education Department office is one of the largest civil rights agencies in the federal government.

The office receives 5,000 complaints per year and can also launch its own investigations, said Kenneth L. Marcus, who is essentially the acting head of the OCR.

When the office finds a violation of federal civil rights laws, it typically uses the stick of threatening to withhold federal funds to encourage schools or districts to submit to a voluntary agreement to end such practices. While the Education Department has the power to withhold federal money or refer cases to the Justice Department for prosecution, such a step is rarely taken.

President Bush has not sought to appoint a permanent head for the OCR since the departure of his first nominee, Gerald A. Reynolds, who faced questions about his civil rights credentials and was never confirmed by the Senate. He served under a recess appointment before taking a Justice Department job in 2003 that didn’t require Senate confirmation.

Mr. Marcus, who has the unwieldy title of “delegated the authority” to direct the office, said the OCR’s lack of a full-fledged leader “hasn’t hindered us at all.”

In the nearly four years of President Bush’s tenure, the office has strengthened enforcement activities, improved customer service, and completed investigations and reports on such issues as minorities in special education and English-language learners, Mr. Marcus said.

But a draft report posted on the Web site of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Commission compiles a laundry list of concerns about the administration’s civil rights record on education.

The controversial draft calls the No Child Left Behind Act flawed in its ability to close the achievement gap and says it will “inhibit equal education opportunity.” It blasts the president on his stance on affirmative action in education, and it chides the OCR for making it difficult to obtain guidance on sexual harassment in schools that came out under the Clinton administration.

The draft report, written by staff employees of the commission and not yet approved by its bipartisan commissioners, has come under fire for the timing of its release in the home stretch of the presidential campaign.

But some observers agree with the message. “The sense I have is that they’re simply foundering,” Mr. Taylor said of the OCR. “They’re looking for other missions because they’re not ready to take on the primary mission.”

Religious Discrimination

Regardless of criticism of the administration’s outlook on traditional civil rights issues, President Bush and his appointees have put their stamp on several key areas.

Just last month, the administration took the offensive on the issue of religious discrimination in schools. In a Sept. 13 letter, the OCR announced that though by law it is not required to take on cases involving religious discrimination—that responsibility falls to the Justice department—the OCR would now be “aggressive and consistent” in areas particularly concerning Muslim, Arab-American, Sikh, and Jewish students, Mr. Marcus said.

“We had not previously said clearly that we enforced Title VI against anti-Semitic or Sikh harassment. … We have not been consistent in enforcing them in those areas,” he said, referring to a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination based on race and religion by recipients of federal funds.

The announcement came, in part, as a response to a case involving a Sikh middle school student in Marlboro, N.J., who was verbally and physically harassed during the 2002-03 school year, at times because of the turban he wore for religious reasons. The boy’s parents filed a complaint with the OCR and met with office officials, said Manjit Singh, the president and co-founder of Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force, a Sikh-American civil rights group based in Washington.

He said the boy’s family, which has now left the country, was pleased with the OCR’s response.

“Many of these incidents are unique and challenging,” Mr. Singh said. “They’re more complex and not just religious per se.”

The office sent out a similar “Dear Colleague” letter last month reminding public schools that racially separate dances and student honors could land them in federal court. (“U.S. Warns Schools on Racially Separate Activities,” Oct. 13, 2004.)

Title IX Reaffirmed

The office hasn’t been reticent about tackling other contentious issues.

In 2002, Secretary of Education Rod Paige appointed a 15-member panel of athletes, educators, and coaches to study Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and its effect on sports. The 32-year-old law, which bars discrimination based on sex in federally financed educational programs, has huge popular support, but some male athletes contend its enforcement has prompted schools to cut men’s sports such as gymnastics and wrestling.

Women’s groups held rallies protesting potential changes, and Secretary Paige ultimately renewed the administration’s support for the law without changes.

But the department did tweak another aspect of Title IX. Earlier this year, it signaled its intent to relax regulations that had effectively blocked most schools from educating boys and girls separately.

Though some women’s advocates worried girls’ education could suffer, the debate has been muted because of limited evidence on whether the practice helps or hinders learning.

But the debate on affirmative action in higher education was anything but muted. In 2003, as the Supreme Court mulled cases on the consideration of race in college admissions, the Bush administration staked out a position against the practice. Though the high court upheld affirmative action in principle while calling for individualized review of applicants, the administration didn’t back off its support for race-neutral alternatives.

The OCR published a report outlining ways schools and colleges could achieve racial and ethnic diversity without relying on preferences in admission. To some advocates, that flew in the face of the Supreme Court ruling.

“Even with the Supreme Court decision, it was almost like they were going forward with what they wanted to do anyway,” said Nancy Zirkin, the deputy director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a Washington-based advocacy group.

But Terence J. Pell, the president of the Center for Individual Rights, a public-interest legal organization in Washington, called the federal report a helpful guide.

“It was an empirically based contribution to the debate,” said Mr. Pell, whose group has pushed for an end to affirmative action.

Both its stance on affirmative action, and the No Child Left Behind Act have not brought the administration closer to traditional civil rights groups.

Earlier this year, Mr. Paige clashed with the NAACP following a public flap over President Bush’s decision not to address the group. Mr. Paige wrote a stinging commentary in The Wall Street Journal chiding the NAACP for failing to rally behind the No Child Left Behind Act.

Mr. Johnson, the NAACP’S national education director, said his organization would still like to work with Mr. Paige and President Bush, but he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.

“They think that unless you are cut from a mold that follows what they believe in totally, they don’t think it’s necessary to engage you in the process,” Mr. Johnson said. “They would rather go it alone than pull together a community of advisers.”


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