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Federal

Duncan Plans to Prod Schools on Civil Rights Laws

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 08, 2010 6 min read
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On the same day that the Obama administration announced its intentions to beef up the enforcement of civil rights in the nation’s schools, the head of the office for civil rights during the Bush years said its track record isn’t lackluster as claimed.

In a conference call before his speech today, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “In the last decade the office for civil rights has not been as vigilant as it should have been in combating gender and racial discrimination and protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities.”

Mr. Duncan delivered a speech on students’ civil rights in Selma, Ala., to mark the 45th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the day that state troopers responded to peaceful civil rights protesters by beating them with billy clubs and dispersing them with tear gas.

Stephanie Monroe, the assistant secretary for civil rights for education from January 2006 to January 2009, said in a phone interview today that the administration of President George W. Bush had a “good record” on enforcing civil rights. “We received over 4,000 cases per year alleging discrimination,” she said. “We investigated and resolved at least 80 percent of those cases within 120 days, which exceeds the federal requirements.”

Ms. Monroe noted that only four of the more than 600 employees of the office for civil rights are political employees, and that many lawyers who process civil rights complaints have been in their posts for more than 25 years. “The law is the law,” she said, and no one should expect a lot of differences between administrations in how civil rights law is enforced in schools.

“I think it would be very disrespectful and insulting to those career staff ... to say they have been sitting on their hands for the last eight years,” Ms. Monroe said.

New Reviews, New Guidance

Mr. Duncan said that the Education Department will launch new compliance reviews that will aim to make sure students have equal access to educational opportunities, including a college-preparatory curriculum, advanced courses, and STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, courses. In addition, the speech says the department will review whether school districts are implementing discipline policies fairly, “without regard to skin color.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan listens to students, teachers, and former students talk about their educational experience as he visits Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Ala., on March 8.

He said the department also plans to roll out new guidance on civil rights for schools.

Ms. Monroe said the OCR under her leadership launched numerous compliance reviews as well, focusing particularly on equity in athletics, access to educational services for English-language learners, and students’ access to Advanced Placement courses, regardless of race or ethnicity.

She said the Obama administration may be trying to base its criticism of the previous administration on the fact that the OCR didn’t launch many new compliance reviews during 2006, the first year of her leadership.

The OCR didn’t take on many new reviews that year because it needed to whittle down a backlog of about 90 cases, she explained. In 2006, she said, the OCR started only nine compliance reviews, but it resolved 72. The next year, she said, the office initiated 23 reviews and resolved 26. In 2008, 42 new reviews were launched, while 38 were resolved.

Ms. Monroe said that Congress decreased appropriations for the OCR to $89.6 million in fiscal 2008, from $91.2 million in 2007, even though the workload had increased.

By contrast, the OCR received $96.8 million in fiscal 2009, under President Bush (slightly less than he had proposed), and $103 million in 2010. President Barack Obama has proposed $106 million for OCR in fiscal 2011.

In the conference call just before Mr. Duncan’s speech, Russlynn Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, said the Obama administration’s compliance reviews will be broader than those conducted over the past decade. For example, she said, the OCR will look at whether students have access to a full sequence of college-preparatory courses, not just Advanced Placement classes.

Mr. Duncan chimed in that rather than just confirming that a school district has a program in place for English-language learners, the OCR would investigate whether that program has strong outcomes for such students.

In addition, Ms. Ali said, the administration will begin to use the “disparate impact” analysis while investigating complaints and conducting compliance reviews, which she contended hasn’t been used by OCR for several years. The analysis aims to determine if a particular policy disproportionately affects a specific racial, ethnic, or gender group.

She said the Education Department plans to issue 17 guidance letters that will touch on issues such as how districts should address sexual violence in schools, how nurses should be trained to address students’ food allergies or work with students who have diabetes, and how schools should address the needs of ELLs who are gifted or have disabilities.

Catherine Collier, a consultant for schools in Oregon and Washington state for OCR compliance reviews, believes the OCR’s monitoring and technical assistance did soften over the past decade, particularly in her specialty: how schools serve English-language learners with disabilities.

In the past decade, she said, the reviews lacked effectiveness because the OCR didn’t provide enough guidance to districts. She recalled that federal officials would tell school districts they must have a research-based plan, but didn’t elaborate on what kind of research districts should rely on or what the criteria should be for success.

“How would a district know what an adequate service would be?” Ms. Collier asked.

She said she hopes the Obama administration will provide clearer guidance on how school districts can protect the civil rights of ELLs with disabilities.

But Roger Clegg, the president and general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington-based conservative think tank, said he hasn’t seen any evidence that the Bush administration wasn’t up to par in the enforcement of civil rights in schools. He held the No. 2 post in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

He said he anticipates that the Obama administration will enforce civil rights laws in part by pursuing “disparate impact” claims, which assert that a practice is illegal because it has a disproportionate effect on a particular racial, ethnic, or gender group.

Mr. Clegg noted that Mr. Duncan indicated that the Education Department plans to look at whether disciplinary procedures are implemented fairly in schools.

In his remarks, Mr. Duncan says that African-American students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers.

Mr. Clegg said: “My view is that if you have evidence that African-American students are being treated differently because of race, of course, you should go after schools engaging in that kind of discrimination.” But, he added, “If all you have are statistical imbalances and you don’t have credible evidence of actual difference in treatment because of race, then it is a bad idea to threaten schools with an investigation.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2010 edition of Education Week

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