By Nadra Kareem Nittle
WASHINGTON—The U.S. Department of Education is seeking to improve the quality of education for minority and poor public school students by aggressively launching civil rights investigations aimed at preventing district administrators from providing more services and resources to predominantly white schools.
Faced with public schools more segregated today than in the 1970s, the department is using the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to improve the quality of education for students from minority and low-income backgrounds. The department has outpaced the Bush administration in initiating civil rights probes.
During 33 months under the Obama administration, the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has launched 30 compliance reviews compared with the 22 begun during the eight-year Bush administration. Investigators determine whether school districts have violated Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.
“The civil rights laws are the most sorely underutilized tool in education reform and closing the achievement gap,” says Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights, who has run the department’s OCR since May 2009. She said President Barack Obama has emphasized that he wants the department investigating education-related civil rights violations. “This is the most important civil rights issue of our time,” she says.
Last year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced on the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday—the day that Alabama state troopers brutalized civil rights activists marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma—that the department’s OCR would significantly increase enforcement actions. Duncan acknowledged that over the last 10 years, the office had not aggressively pursued Title 6 investigations to improve the quality of education for minority and poor students.
The OCR received about 7,000 complaints last year, a record for the department. School districts are being investigated for a range of possible violations, including failure to provide minority students with access to college- and career-track courses, not assigning highly qualified teachers to schools with predominantly minority students and disproportionately placing such students in special education courses and suspending minority students.
The OCR has also investigated schools for failing to protect female students of color from sexual violence and not offering access to higher-level math and science courses.
Judith A. Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project in Washington, D.C., which advocates for quality education, acknowledges a significant change in direction for the department’s OCR. Ali served as deputy co-director of the organization from 1999 to 2000.
“For years, we couldn’t rely on the federal government to enforce civil rights law, so now we have an Office for Civil Rights that is finally taking up the torch,” Browne Dianis says. “During the Bush administration, we wouldn’t encourage anyone to file a complaint. The feeling was that even if you filed a complaint, they probably wouldn’t investigate or would say there was no racial discrimination.”
Education Department officials express concern that a wide disparity exists between the achievement level of graduating white and African-American high school students in specific subject areas, such as biology and math.
Data show that white students are six times better prepared than black students for college biology when they graduate from high school. White students are four times as prepared for college algebra as their black counterparts. Furthermore, white high school graduates are twice as likely to have completed Advanced Placement (AP) calculus courses as black or Latino graduates.
Addressing the statistics, Ali says the solution is not “just about adding more courses” but better preparing minority students in these subject areas. The civil rights investigations are forcing improvements.
In South Carolina, the OCR has targeted school districts for concentrating AP courses at majority white high schools, robbing black students of the chance to take college-track courses. Because of the OCR probe, AP classes have become more widely available at majority black high schools.
Ali is also addressing the practice of assigning the least qualified teachers to poor and predominantly minority schools. By forcing school districts to end this practice, she hopes to narrow the achievement gap between whites and students of color, preparing more minority students for academically challenging courses.
The Education Department and education advocates are examining the higher percentage of minority students assigned to special education classes in many districts.
“Special education is another reflection of huge disparities,” says Daniel J. Losen, senior education law and policy associate at The Civil Rights Project at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
Losen says school administrators often use subjective criteria to place students in special education programs, resulting in a disproportionate number of minority students being removed from the general classroom setting. Moreover, Ali says the department is evaluating why white and Asian students are overrepresented in gifted and talented programs, while blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in special education classes.
Based on an NAACP complaint, the OCR is investigating the Wake County (N.C.) Public School System for planning to assign students to schools based on their neighborhoods of residence. Critics contend that the plan would kill diversity in the school system and concentrate poor students, effectively resegregating the district.
Ali says “housing patterns and the correlation between race and poverty” also cause resegregation of school districts. “The federal government is working to end that kind of resegregation,” she says. “We’re very much trying to end discrimination no matter where students go to school or who they go to school with, if they go to school with kids who look like them or to an integrated school.”
Owatonna (Minn.) Senior High School is a case in point. The OCR received a complaint that the mostly white school had not acted sufficiently to stop racial harassment of East African students. When racial tension erupted in 2009 and white and Somali students brawled, school officials disciplined the African students more severely.
Due to the OCR investigation, Owatonna Public Schools agreed in April to take measures to prevent Somali students from being bullied. School officials issued an anti-harassment statement to students, parents and staff while training the school community on what constitutes discrimination and harassment, and meeting with Somali students to review their concerns.
The district must also submit annual compliance reviews to the OCR and the U.S. Department of Justice for the next three years. The case is the most recent race-related Title 6 investigation that the OCR has resolved.
The resolution was a coup for the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which filed the complaint on behalf of Owatonna’s largely Muslim Somali population. Many Somali refugees have settled in Minnesota over the past two decades, and the state houses almost 40 percent of all Somalis in the United States.
Taneeza Islam, civil rights director of CAIR-MN, says none of the 30 CAIR chapters nationally had filed such a complaint. “We just took our chances,” she recalls. “I had no idea how many cases they had and what their investigation findings looked like. Thankfully, we picked the right [presidential] administration to work with. The process has been really easy. It surprised us how proactive the investigators were.”
Resolving the complaint took about a year, Islam says. Since the resolution, CAIR has heard no more concerns about treatment of East African students at Owatonna Senior High. CAIR-MN has also filed a complaint to stop reported harassment of Somali students in St. Cloud, Minn. That case, under investigation for 18 months, is pending.
The Owatonna situation exemplifies racial disparities that persist regarding discipline in public schools. For instance, the OCR has reviewed schools in North Carolina’s Winston-Salem/Forsyth County system and Louisiana’s St. James Parish for infringing on civil rights of black students by disciplining them more severely than other students.
“There’s a national trend of students of color being suspended from school for minor actions,” Browne Dianis says. “When we think about discipline, it was originally intended to cover violent acts.” Data show that African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely to be expelled as their white peers.
Too often, Browne Dianis says, schools remove minority children from class for minor infractions such as tardiness or talking back to teachers. She adds that in today’s schools, where standardized test scores are emphasized, a child can easily fall behind academically, and the likelihood of dropping out increases. “Once you drop out, the more likely you are to end up in the criminal justice system,” she says.
In 2008, Browne Dianis worked with Baltimore schools on their discipline code to reduce the suspension rate. After the number of student offenses punishable by removal from class was narrowed, the suspension rate plummeted from 26,000 to 9,000 the following year, she says.
John H. Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, urges the OCR to address racial disparities in several education areas.
Jackson is concerned, for instance, that some local school districts remove unqualified teachers from poor schools but replace them with substitute teachers. He also says states must stop uneven funding of black and white schools.
“Look at how the revenue flows to districts and being based on property taxes, it creates an inherent inequity,” Jackson says. “If you know the process for distributing resources is creating an inequity, there has to be a process that rights it.”
He calls on the Education Department to withhold federal funding to enforce civil rights compliance, a tactic that the federal government used to help integrate public schools in the 1960s and 1970s.
Jackson applauded Ali for her leadership in re-engaging the OCR and examining racial disparities in U.S. education. “These disparities did not begin today,” he says. “They have been here for the last five, 10, 15 years.”
While Ali says the OCR’s aggressive pursuit of civil rights violations is continuing the historic fight for racial justice begun decades ago, she cautions that the current racial opportunity gap could reverse gains of the civil rights movement.
“You can’t give better to some than you do to others,” Ali says. “That’s not equity. That’s a farce. It goes without saying that equity without quality is not equity at all.”