Federal

Duncan Plans to Prod Schools on Civil Rights Laws

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 08, 2010 6 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Includes updates and/or revisions.

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


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Opinion The Consequence of Public-Health Officials Racing to Shutter Schools
Public-health officials' lack of concern for the risks of closing schools may shed light on Americans' reticent to embrace their directives.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Federal New Federal Team to Work on Puerto Rico School Improvement, Oversight
The Puerto Rico Education Sustainability Team will focus on creating better learning environments and improving financial management.
3 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits the Emilio Delgado School in Corozal on June 30, 2021 during a visit to Puerto Rico.
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits the Emilio Delgado School in Corozal on June 30, 2021 during a visit to Puerto Rico.
Teresa Canino Rivera/GDA via AP
Federal Pandemic Tests Limits of Cardona's Collaborative Approach as Education Secretary
He's sought the image of a veteran educator among former peers, but COVID has forced him to take a tough stance toward some state leaders.
10 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter speak to Mia Arias, 10, during their visit to P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021 in New York.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter speak to Mia Arias, 10, during a visit to P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, last month.
Brittainy Newman/AP
Federal White House Launches Hispanic Education Initiative Led by Miguel Cardona
President Joe Biden said his administration intends to address the "systemic causes" of educational disparities faced by Hispanic students.
2 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona writes down and draws positive affirmations on poster board with students during his visit to P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021 in New York.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits students in New York City at P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school in the Bronx last month.
Brittainy Newman/AP