Education Dept. to Increase Civil Rights Enforcement

Published March 26, 2010

The U.S. Department of Education plans to step up enforcement of civil rights laws in America’s public schools, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Duncan outlined the Education Department’s “equity agenda” in a March speech commemorating the 45th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” riots in Selma, Alabama.

“Civil rights laws require vigorous enforcement not just because they are the law of the land but also because the data paint a stark picture of educational inequality,” Duncan told an audience gathered on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the scene of some of the worst unrest of the turbulent Civil Rights era.

Duncan said the ED’s Office of Civil Rights would send “letters of guidance” to educators about ensuring fairness and equity in the classroom.

As part of the greater emphasis on civil rights issues, the Department will conduct compliance reviews of access to college coursework and reviews of districts’ disciplinary policies, Duncan said. He cited low high school and college graduation rates among minorities as a reason for the initiative.

‘Focus on Equal Opportunities’

Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington DC, questioned the wisdom of relying on the Office of Civil Rights to enforce educational equality and introduce meaningful education reforms.

“The focus should be on ensuring equal opportunities, regardless of skin color, rather than trying to coerce school districts into politically correct racial balancing,” Clegg said.

Clegg says he worries about the unintended consequences of Duncan’s plan.

“In the area of school discipline, for example, it makes no sense to announce that school districts are going to be investigated just because you have more students of one race rather than another being disciplined,” he said. “All that will do is push school districts either to discipline some kids who shouldn’t be disciplined, or not discipline kids who need to be disciplined, all in the name of racial balance.”

“That’s not fair to anyone, and especially not the students who want to learn but can’t because of discipline breakdowns in the school,” Clegg said.

“Not only does this make no sense, but this approach is inconsistent with the civil-rights statute that [Duncan] is supposedly enforcing,” Clegg added. “That statute prohibits discrimination; it doesn’t require racial quotas.”

‘Highest Example of Hypocrisy’

Virginia Walden-Ford, a board member of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), also raised concerns with the administration’s plan. Ford, who in 2004 helped establish the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program which is being eliminated under the Obama administration’s 2011 budget, says she doesn’t understand why school choice is not part of Duncan’s “equity agenda.”

“When the administration talks about protecting the civil rights of students being their priority, I am puzzled, confused, and angered by their unwillingness to support a small DC program that has been in the forefront of getting children into quality educational environments,” Walden-Ford said. “Their proclamation is the highest example of hypocrisy that I have witnessed in my 15-plus years of fighting for the education of the children of low-income and working-class families.

“By not supporting and embracing the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has benefited thousands of DC children, they have violated those children’s civil rights,” Walden-Ford added. “If they are serious about making sure that all children have equal access to a quality education, then they will stand up and protect this program for all children who wish to participate.”

‘Educational Apartheid’

Walden-Ford compared the current administration’s policies to the segregation-era South.

“Fifty years ago, Orval Faubus, a white governor, stood in the doors of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas and blocked black students from entering the school. Faubus’s defiance came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the ‘separate but equal’ educational apartheid system for whites and blacks was unconstitutional,” Walden-Ford said.

“Families with money, including President Obama and Secretary Duncan, have exercised school choice by sending their children to better, private schools in the city or moving to the suburbs and leaving mostly low-income, minority families in failing schools,” Walden-Ford explained. 

Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is a policy analyst in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation,