Department of Education Revives Civil Rights Office: Los Angeles and 31 Other Districts Undergo Federal Compliance Reviews

By Finkel, Ed | District Administration, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Department of Education Revives Civil Rights Office: Los Angeles and 31 Other Districts Undergo Federal Compliance Reviews


Finkel, Ed, District Administration


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IN LATE MARCH, THE LOS Angeles Unified School District became the first of at least 32 K12 school districts nationwide to undergo federal compliance reviews intended to spotlight possible discrimination against specific groups of students that has resulted in persistent achievement gaps on standardized tests.

The Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, which has a mission to ensure equal access to education, according to its Web site, hopes to use these compliance reviews to provide technical assistance to help districts improve their performance.

But there are new sticks to go along with this carrot: Federal government funding might be made conditional on corrective actions based on the case and the issues involved, or, eventually, it could be cut off and districts could be sued, says Justin Hamilton, press secretary for the department. The U.S. Department of Justice would handle any legal actions taken. "Nobody's saying that's going to be a commonly used resource," Hamilton says. "But it is a possibility."

The Office for Civil Rights is responsible for ensuring that recipients of federal education funds comply with several federal civil rights laws. It enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects against racial and ethnic discrimination; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based on disability; and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975.

Starting with President Ronald Reagan, the civil rights office "had fallen into a pattern of inaction on big issues," according to Cindy Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary for civil rights in the Carter administration.

Compliance reviews were rarely if ever initiated by the department, she says, and pending issues were dropped. For example, an investigation of inequitable funding that began under Carter between the University of North Carolina system and historically black, public colleges in the state quickly ended after Reagan took office, and a proposed rule under Title VI to better educate English-language learners in K12 was dropped.

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In addition, federal judges appointed by Reagan and his Republican successors have not been nearly as sympathetic to civil rights cases, Brown says. "The kinds of evidence standards we could use back then [in the Carter years], you can't use now," she says. "Civil fights law is very constrained because of judicial appointments."

But then urgency started to build during the Clinton administration, and "serious attention" was paid to standards and accountability, Brown recalls. The office under Clinton spent more time than the previous two administrations investigating the treatment of English language learners and, with the advent of the ADA, the Civil Rights Office had more reasons to advocate for students with disabilities.

At the turn of this century, Hamilton says, the George W. Bush administration investigated formal complaints filed against districts but did not frequently initiate compliance reviews itself.

Historic Change

While the office previously might just have looked to see whether a program for ELLs existed, it will now examine whether the program is achieving results, says Russlynn All, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education. Ali says the office never used its authority to study unintentional discrimination in a "very robust way." But now it will.

The persistence of achievement gaps that leave African American, Latino, Native American and poor children behind, as measured by the No Child Left Behind legislation, prompted the office to bear down on the issue, which Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced March 8 on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala. …

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