In his first speech as president-elect in November, Joe Biden said that racial justice and the eradication of systemic racism would be foundational to his administration. A cornerstone of this ambitious goal should be to restore and broaden civil rights policies in K-12 education, policies that saw significant rollback under the Trump administration. The good news is that much of the Trump K-12 education agenda that reversed Obama administration initiatives can now be reversed in turn.
Since 2016, we have studied changes to civil rights policy under the Trump administration. We knew from our previous research that the U.S. Department of Education had taken an active role in expanding civil rights enforcement during Barack Obama’s presidency, and it was clear from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign that the new administration would take a dramatically different course. We believed it would be important to study how the changes would play out and how states, school districts, and advocacy organizations would respond if civil rights were indeed rolled back. We also hoped our research would be a valuable source for future historians; and, if politics again reversed direction, as they did with the 2020 election, we hoped our research could help identify which rights then would require amending.
To make systemic civil rights violations visible, the Civil Rights Data Collection should be fully restored, funded, and enhanced.
We found that the Trump administration quickly rescinded vital civil rights protections regarding school desegregation and civil rights data collection. These actions stalled Obama policies that enabled school districts to pursue voluntary desegregation efforts and created mechanisms for intervention on civil rights violations in school districts around the country. Moreover, the many other urgent concerns facing civil rights groups—such as immigration bans or white-supremacist rallies like in Charlottesville, Va.—challenged the capacity of nongovernmental organizations to resist the setbacks to race-conscious education policy, according to our research.
We also found that the other branches of the federal government—along with state and local action—inhibited deeper rollbacks. Yet the Trump administration’s success at rapid civil rights policy changes points to areas where the Biden-Harris administration could take immediate and long-term action to restore civil rights even without congressional support. In 2017, the current administration terminated a $12 million discretionary- grant program set aside by the Obama administration that was intended to provide funds for districts to plan or implement voluntary integration strategies. The several dozen districts that had already applied for the grants were left without much needed resources to desegregate their schools. The following year, the departments of Education and Justice rescinded their guidance documents about permissible, effective strategies to achieve diverse schools. While this action didn’t change the current case law governing districts’ actions, it underscored potential risk that districts seeking to combat segregation faced.
The incoming administration can do a great deal to assist districts that want to mitigate segregation. Not only can it reinstate guidance for effective and legally permissive strategies, it can also reinstate an interagency memorandum between the departments of Education, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development to help communities work across agencies to affirmatively advance racial and socioeconomic integration of housing and schools.
We found that changes to the Education Department’s office for civil rights data collection and enforcement under this administration prevented investigation and adjudication of thousands of civil rights complaints. Further, revisions to the OCR case-processing manual limited the ability to broaden individual complaints into more systematic investigations of how districts’ actions, for example, harmed a group of students. These changes impose more of a burden on students to identify and challenge each potential violation. To date, we have been unable to obtain information on OCR case resolutions after 2016. To make systemic civil rights violations visible, the Civil Rights Data Collection should be fully restored, funded, and enhanced to monitor inequity that might be growing during the pandemic.
The Trump administration championed school choice and private schools without any parallel commitment to civil rights guidance or enforcement. Yet research shows that unregulated school choice policies tend to exacerbate and heighten existing racial, socioeconomic, and other forms of stratification.
Biden’s Education Department should use discretionary funds for voluntary incentives to align school choice policies with civil rights goals. The next U.S. secretary of education should emphasize the importance of establishing systems of equitable school choice, with magnets and charters working in concert with traditional public systems to meet diversity goals.
It is not yet clear whether the Senate will be in Democratic or Republican control; however, bipartisan cooperation on K-12 federal education policy was the norm during the second half of the 20th century. Even during Trump’s presidency, we found that members of Congress from both parties boosted the Department of Education’s budget to mitigate civil rights rollbacks. Biden can push Congress to enact his proposed tripling of appropriations for Title I schools so that compensatory programs in the Every Student Succeeds Act can be equitably funded. This would help as local and state governments face substantially lowered revenue and increased expenditures and, unlike the federal government, are unable to run a deficit.
The Biden-Harris administration need not take on the task of restoring and broadening K-12 civil rights policies alone. In our study, we interviewed over a dozen leaders from the civil rights community who collaborate across law, advocacy, and policy to advance race-conscious civil rights policies. They can support the incoming education transition team and Education Department in sustaining a robust civil rights agenda. The choice of a U.S. attorney general committed to civil rights enforcement will also make a difference. The adoption of our recommendations will help to reverse the policies of an administration that was neglectful in its protection of the rights of students of color and LGBTQ students.
The next administration must reinstate strong civil rights policies that reimagine just and equitable schooling.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as Civil Rights for the New Administration