Civil Wrongs: Federal Equity Initiative Promotes Paperwork, Not Equality

By Melnick, R. Shep | Education Next, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Civil Wrongs: Federal Equity Initiative Promotes Paperwork, Not Equality


Melnick, R. Shep, Education Next


IN OCTOBER 2014, U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan announced the Obama administration's new "education equity initiative," explaining that the president could not "continue to wait" for Congress to act "on behalf of vulnerable children." The centerpiece of this initiative was a 37-page "Dear Colleague" letter (DCL) detailing what public schools must do to ensure that all children have "equal access to educational resources without regard to race, color, or national origin." The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which developed the letter, contends that Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act authorized this far-reaching regulatory action. Not only is that a highly dubious assertion, but the mandate is more likely to produce political controversy and a blizzard of paperwork than to improve the education of minority children.

The letter is the latest in a series of controversial DCLs that the Office for Civil Rights has issued since 2010. Past letters have focused on sexual harassment, programs for English language learners, and school discipline (see "Civil Rights Enforcement Gone Haywire," features, Fall 2014). In each instance, OCR has used a letter circulated to public education officials nationwide to establish regulatory policy unilaterally, providing no opportunity for public comment or interagency review. Last year's equity DCL was signed by the assistant secretary for civil rights, Catherine E. Lhamon, who prior to joining OCR had served as lead attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in a major California school-finance case.

Flawed Assumptions

Not since the late 1960s has OCR wielded Title VI guidelines so aggressively. The effort to end de jure segregation back then enjoyed broad public and judicial support; OCR worked hand in hand with the federal courts to desegregate southern schools.

This time around, OCR cannot expect such judicial cooperation, because the agency has strayed so far from the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act. Just as important, OCR's demand that each school district provide a detailed accounting of resources available to schools with varying racial demographics is more likely to overwhelm school officials with administrative burdens than to create a groundswell of support for redistributing education funds.

The Office for Civil Rights' equity DCL is a throwback to the 1960s in another way: at its heart lies the assumption that spending more money on minority students will reduce the racial achievement gap. OCR focuses entirely on inputs, tacitly assuming that outcomes will improve if more resources are channeled to existing schools.

There are three problems inherent in this assumption: 1) since the early 1970s, real percapita spending on K--12 public education has nearly doubled, yet student performance in the 12th grade has barely budged, and the U.S. has fallen further behind other nations; 2) at the same time, states have reformed their funding processes to allocate more money to schools with high percentages of poor children, yet the racial achievement gap has hardly changed; and 3) a wide array of academic studies show that what matters most is not how much money is spent but how well it is spent. From hard experience we have learned that simply sending more money to failing schools will not improve them.

Cited in the DCL's 63 footnotes are studies indicating that targeting large sums to high-quality programs can help disadvantaged children. But the letter virtually ignores a key question: what constitutes a high-quality program? To make matters worse, the material in the footnotes often casts doubt on the bold pronouncements made in the text. For example, to support its claim that "participation in high-quality arts programs...is valuable to all students," the letter cites four articles, one titled, "Mute Those Claims: No Evidence (Yet) for a Causal Link between Arts Study and Academic Achievement. …

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