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The Baseline for the Ed. Department’s Civil Rights Office Heading Into the Trump Era

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 02, 2016 3 min read
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One of the bigger topics of discussion about how President-elect Donald Trump will handle education is how he will handle civil rights in the education world, and how Trump’s approach will differ from President Barack Obama’s administration.

The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights has been at the center of several prominent battles in the Obama era, including racial disparities in school discipline and transgender students’ rights. Some advocates are concerned about Trump’s nomination of school choice advocate Betsy DeVos to be education secretary, and how choice programs alone often don’t truly address disparities in educational quality, equity, discipline, and other issues. And more broadly, there’s concern in the education policy world that the attitude of Trump and his campaign towards people of color and other groups will make schools’ job of serving those students more difficult, and that federal oversight csould taper off.

But others argue that Obama’s approach to these issues has been too aggressive and overbearing on K-12 as well as higher education, and that a lighter touch will be welcomed by many states and districts. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. and the chairman of the Senate education committee, has been a vocal critic of the office’s approach to issues like transgender rights. And Trump’s transition team has indicated there could well be a less-expansive role for the office while still ensuring students’ rights are protected.

So when Trump takes office and DeVos (assuming she’s confirmed by the Senate) takes over the U.S. Department of Education, what will the department’s office for civil rights look like? Let’s go to the numbers.

Much Bigger Workload

The office for civil rights provides enforcement for and implements regulations governing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination, and other federal laws. It’s also involved in the Civil Rights Data Collection, which is conducted every two years and tracks various indicators of educational equity and opportunity.

Federal funding for the department’s office for civil rights is $107 million in fiscal 2016, out of a total Education Department budget of $68.1 billion, or about .15 percent of the overall budget. President Barack Obama requested $138 million for the office in his fiscal 2017 budget, which has not been acted on by Congress and is essentially dead in the water following Trump’s election. Included in that request is an increase in the number of full-time or equivalent positions in the office, from 589 in fiscal 2016 to 764 in fiscal 2017.

Money for the office has increased from $89.6 million in fiscal 2008 to its current $107 million level, although it dipped from $103 million in fiscal 2010 to $98.4 million in fiscal 2013 and 2014.

“Over the past 6 years, OCR’s workload has dramatically expanded as civil rights complaints received by the Department have increased from 6,933 in 2010 to an estimated 10,900 in 2016. At the same time, OCR’s staffing has actually decreased, increasing the number of complaints per staff to 26,” a summary of Obama’s budget request for the office said.

One consequence is a growing backlog of unresolved civil rights complaints, according to the budget request. The number of cases pending for review for more than 180 days (a key target for the department) grew from 315 at the end of fiscal 2009 to 1,311 at the end of fiscal 2015. Concurrently, the president’s budget was designed to address the decrease in the number of discretionary enforcement activities undertaken by the office for civil rights—the number of such activities has gone from 96 in 1995 to 19 in 2015.

The overall number of cases per year has grown from 6,933 in fiscal 2010 to an estimate 10,900 in fiscal 2016.

“OCR has too many cases per staff,” says a separate budget document, which also that the office’s cases have grown more complex. For example, the average processing time for each case involving an allegation of sexual violence, the document states, has grown from 289 days to 963 days since 2010. The budget document provided a chart to back up its requests:

Given these numbers, it will be interesting to see how the flow of complaints to the office for civil rights will change under a Trump administration, and how a Trump administration’s approach to these civil rights issues will impact caseloads, budgets, and other issues.

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