Federal

Civil Rights Choice Reynolds An Affirmative Action Critic

By Joetta L. Sack & Lisa Fine — July 11, 2001 7 min read
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President Bush’s choice for the Department of Education’s top civil rights job, announced in late June, has sparked concerns among some liberal groups. Meanwhile, disability-rights advocates cheered his selection for the agency’s special education chief.

Gerald A. Reynolds, a Kansas City, Mo., public-utility lawyer who has worked for conservative African-American groups, was announced June 25 as Mr. Bush’s selection to head the office for civil rights. If confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Reynolds will be responsible for investigating complaints of discrimination and enforcing federal civil rights laws in schools and other educational institutions.

Robert Pasternack, New Mexico’s state director of special education, was nominated June 21 to be the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. In that job, Mr. Pasternack, if confirmed, will oversee the enforcement of federal special education laws and regulations. He would likely also play a role in the upcoming reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal special education law.

Also on June 21, Mr. Bush nominated Joanne M. Wilson to become the commissioner of the Rehabilitative Services Administration, a division of the special education office.

The White House has now announced the nominations of 12 of the top 15 officials at the Education Department. But only Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Deputy Secretary William D. Hansen have been confirmed by the Senate, and it could be months before the others are officially granted permission to begin their jobs. Until they receive Senate confirmation, the nominees cannot perform the duties of their new jobs but may act as consultants to the secretary. (See related story, “Paige Asserts He’ll Smooth Early Bumps,” July 11, 2001).

Views Distorted?

Mr. Reynolds, 38, was the president and legal counsel from 1997 to 1998 for the Center for New Black Leadership, a Washington-based group that promotes school choice, and he continues to serve on its board. He was also a legal analyst for the Center for Equal Opportunity from 1995 to 1997. The Washington research and public-policy group—headed by Linda Chavez, who was President Bush’s initial choice to be secretary of labor— is well known for its criticism of affirmative action and bilingual education.

Based on those associations, critics of the nomination suggest that Mr. Reynolds would not vigorously pursue the OCR’s responsibilities, which include ensuring that schools and colleges comply with legal requirements on racial and gender equity and access for people with disabilities.

Mr. Reynolds, currently the senior regulatory counsel for Kansas City Power and Light Co., acknowledged in a short telephone interview with Education Week that his views had stirred controversy, but suggested that some of his opinions had been mischaracterized.

“I don’t oppose all affirmative action programs. That statement is misleading at best,” Mr. Reynolds said. He referred all other inquiries to the Education Department, adding, “I would love to have a conversation about this, but I can’t.”

“It’s an honor to be considered for the post. We have to improve the quality of education,” he said.

Values and Progress

In a February 1999 article titled “Government is a Barrier to Progress,” Mr. Reynolds credited traditional civil rights groups with changing laws and culture that had blatantly discriminated against African-Americans. But he argued that those groups have stood behind outdated concepts such as affirmative action rather than recognizing new challenges that blacks face.

Lower standards for African-Americans brought on by government programs and laws and by societal norms, he contended in the article, prevent a free flow of middle-class values, such as an emphasis on education, into the black population.

“The rejection of values that are viewed as ‘white’ has had a negative effect on blacks’ progress because some of these values, such as the will to master school subjects, are highly correlated with success,” he wrote in the article, published in the conservative magazine The World and I.

The announcement of Mr. Reynolds’ appointment follows President Bush’s nomination in April of Brian Jones, 32, who likewise has ties to the Center for New Black Leadership, to become the chief legal counsel for the Education Department. Perceptions of Mr. Jones’ and Mr. Reynolds’ views and relative inexperience have generated some concern in liberal and civil rights circles and could hinder their confirmation by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“On the face of it, that is a very troubling nomination,” William L. Taylor, a veteran civil rights lawyer in Washington, said of the selection of Mr. Reynolds. Mr. Taylor noted that the OCR also makes sure that states’ and districts’ standards and tests are not biased against minority and female students, a timely issue given the Bush administration’s emphasis on stricter accountability for student achievement.

“It’s quite extraordinary that Mr. Bush, who says he cares about education, uses the Education Department as a parking lot for ideological zealots,” said Mr. Taylor, who is the acting chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a private watchdog group in Washington.

In response, Mr. Paige said in an interview last week, “I think President Bush is stacking this department with very highly qualified and capable people.” But he noted, “There will be some discussions about some of them.”

Home State Support

Meanwhile, officials from a national special education advocacy group said they were pleased with Mr. Bush’s choice of Mr. Pasternack.

“From his work in New Mexico, it seems like he is very forward- thinking,” said Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children, based in Arlington, Va. “I’m sure he will be an asset to special education.”

Back in his home state of New Mexico, education officials applauded the selection of Mr. Pasternack, 53, for the department’s chief position in special education. He has been that state’s director of special education since January 1998. Under his leadership, the state developed an alternative assessment for students with disabilities and helped improve early- intervention services for young children.

Michael J. Davis, New Mexico’s superintendent of public instruction, said Mr. Pasternack’s advocacy had helped increase parent involvement and had produced initiatives to improve results for special-needs children.

New Mexico officials said Mr. Pasternack, who is the guardian of an adult brother who has Down syndrome, has been a pioneer in the kinds of accountability efforts championed by the Bush administration.

He has also helped New Mexico make strides in early-intervention efforts for students with potential learning difficulties, geared toward maintaining many of those students in regular education later on, observers in the state said. He pushed the state to adopt the category of “developmental delay” for children from birth to age 9, a designation that entitles children to early services, and he developed early-literacy programs in school districts’ full-day kindergartens.

“Being a family member himself of a person with a disability, he is a believer that schools should produce and be accountable, and that they should be listening to what families want out of those schools,” said Doris Husted, the public-policy director for ARC of New Mexico, a statewide advocacy organization for people with disabilities.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., wrote a letter Feb. 5 to President Bush recommending Mr. Pasternack’s nomination.

Before his government work, Mr. Pasternack served as the chief executive officer of Casa de Corazon, a children’s comprehensive community- mental-health center. He also served as the director of clinical services for Taos/Colfax Community Services Inc. and as the superintendent of the New Mexico Boys’ School.

President Bush also tapped Ms. Wilson, 54, the founder and director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind and a former teacher of blind students, to run the Rehabilitative Services Administration. That arm of the Education Department oversees efforts by state and local agencies to provide programs to help individuals with disabilities obtain employment.

In addition, Secretary Paige in late June and early July announced the appointment of two deputy assistant secretaries, positions that do not require Senate confirmation.

C. Todd Jones, the president of the National Education Knowledge Industry Association, a trade group for researchers, and a former aide to Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, will serve as the deputy assistant secretary for civil rights. As a House aide, Mr. Jones, 34, was instrumental in navigating the passage of the 1997 revision of the IDEA.

A. Clayton Boothby III, 30, will become the deputy assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs. Mr. Boothby is the associate director for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge’s Washington office.

A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Civil Rights Choice Reynolds An Affirmative Action Critic

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