Obama administration: more civil rights enforcement in schools

The Obama administration intends to step up enforcement of civil rights laws that apply to schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made the announcement in a speech in Selma, Ala., timed to commemorate the 45th anniversary of civil rights marches there.

Lynne Sladky/AP
On the 45th anniversary of the civil rights marches in Selma, Ala., the Obama administration announces it intends to step up enforcement of civil rights laws that apply to schools.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan signaled Monday the Obama administration’s intention to step up enforcement of civil rights laws that apply to schools and colleges, many of which are often ignored.

In remarks delivered in Selma, Ala, timed to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the marches in which civil rights protesters were brutally attacked by police, Secretary Duncan said, “The truth is that, in the last decade, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has not been as vigilant as it should have been in combating gender and racial discrimination and protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. But that is about to change.... We are going to reinvigorate civil rights enforcement.”

In particular, Duncan discussed the Education Department’s plan to issue guidance letters to schools across the United States, as well as its intention to conduct numerous compliance reviews around issues like discipline and equal access to educational opportunities.

He highlighted certain indicators that point to inequities existing today:

• Upon finishing high school, white students are about six times more likely to be college-ready in biology than African-American students. In algebra, they’re four-plus times more likely.

• Just 12 percent of high schools produce half the dropouts in America. Three-fourths of African-American and Latino come from those schools.

• African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely to be expelled as their white peers.

Duncan also pointed to a Denver Post investigation that showed that three-quarters of teachers who had been let go and had trouble finding another teaching job over the past four years were placed in high-poverty schools.

That last issue – access to good teachers – is one that Amy Wilkins would like to see the department pay particular attention to. Ms. Wilkins is a vice president of the Education Trust, which works to close the achievement gap. Research shows that good teaching is important to success in school.

Wilkins also says that she hopes the department will not only try to enforce existing laws better through the OCR, but also work to keep civil rights and equity issues central to future legislation, such as the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.

The department plans to initiate 38 compliance reviews this year, although Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, declined to name which districts will be the focus, saying that the department has to follow a notification process.

In a conference call with reporters, Ms. Ali said, “You can expect to see our compliance reviews be a little broader in terms of issues” than in the past. The OCR, she said, will also be issuing 17 guidance letters to schools over a wide range of civil rights issues, including disabilities, access to math and science (or STEM) courses, sexual violence, and food allergies.

Rather than just determining whether a district complies with the letter of the law in certain areas, the department will look at what the outcomes are for students, Duncan said in the conference call. “This is really about us trying to close achievement gaps,” he said.

“We don’t know what it will mean until we see it in operation, but it’s good talk,” says Gary Orfield, a professor at University of California in Los Angeles and co-director of the Civil Rights Project. “A lot of civil rights enforcement is done by signals from Washington about whether people need to pay attention to civil rights or not, and there have been no signals from Washington for a decade that civil rights is important.”

Professor Orfield says he hopes the administration will make a concentrated effort on issues like segregation – which has grown harder to make strides in after a 2007 Supreme Court case restricted the ways that districts can use race in determining which schools students attend. (For more on that case, click here.) He also hopes it will follow up the tough rhetoric with real repercussions for districts that don’t comply, such as withholding funding.

Civil rights laws for schools in the past have been “a little like an income-tax law where nobody will ever be sanctioned,” says Orfield. “They’re turning on the auditing button again.”

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