By SAM DILLON | NY Times
March 7, 2010
Seeking to step up enforcement of civil rights laws, the federal Department of Education says it will be sending letters in coming weeks to thousands of school districts and colleges, outlining their responsibilities on issues of fairness and equal opportunity.
As part of that effort, the department intends to open investigations known as compliance reviews in about 32 school districts nationwide, seeking to verify that students of both sexes and all races are getting equal access to college preparatory curriculums and to advanced placement courses. The department plans to open similar civil rights investigations at half a dozen colleges.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan is to announce the initiatives in a speech on Monday in Selma, Ala., where on March 7, 1965, hundreds of civil rights marchers were beaten by Alabama state troopers.
Mr. Duncan plans to say that in the past decade the department’s Office for Civil Rights “has not been as vigilant as it should have been in combating gender and racial discrimination and protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities,” according to a text of the speech distributed to reporters on Sunday.
It continues, “We are going to reinvigorate civil rights enforcement.”
At the end of high school, white students are about six times as likely to be ready to pursue college-level biology courses as black students, and more than four times as likely to be ready for college algebra, department officials said. White high school graduates are more than twice as likely to have taken advanced placement calculus classes as black or Latino graduates.
The department enforces civil rights laws in schools and universities by responding to specific complaints from parents, students and others, but also by scrutinizing its own vast bodies of data on the nation’s school and university systems, looking for signs of possible discrimination. A school seen to be expelling Latino students in numbers far out of proportion to their share of the student population, for instance, might become a candidate for compliance review, officials said.
As it seeks to combat discrimination in schools and universities more aggressively, the administration will be acting in an area in which some Supreme Court rulings in recent years have brought more ambiguity. Federal policy for decades had aimed at compelling school districts to end racial inequality, for instance.
But in examining longstanding desegregation efforts in the Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., schools in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that school authorities could not seek to achieve or maintain integration through measures that take explicit account of a student’s race, a decision that seemed to reverse the thrust of four decades of federal policy.
Some civil rights advocates said they had hoped the administration would move more quickly last year to ramp up the activity of the Office for Civil Rights, the department’s second-largest, with 600 employees.
“This whole area has been a dead zone for years, and people were worried that new actions were too slow in coming,” said William L. Taylor, chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington group that monitors federal policy and practices. “There had been strong hopes that they would move more quickly. This sounds like positive movement, which we’ve all been asking for.”
Russlyn H. Ali, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, said in an interview that the department would begin 38 compliance reviews before the current fiscal year ended on Oct. 1. That number compares with 29 such reviews carried out last year, 42 in 2008, 23 in 2007 and nine in 2006, she said.
“But the big difference is not in the number of the reviews we intend to carry out, but in their complexity and depth,” Ms. Ali said. “Most of the reviews in the recent past have looked at procedures.”
In cases analyzing potential sex discrimination, for instance, federal investigators would often check to see if schools and universities had grievance procedures in place, and if so, take no enforcement action, she said.
“Now we’ll not simply see whether there is a program in place, but also examine whether that program is working effectively,” she said.
The department plans to begin a major investigation on Wednesday in one of the nation’s largest urban school districts, Ms. Ali said. She declined to identify it because, she said, department officials were still notifying Congress and others of the plans.
The compliance reviews typically involve visits to the school district or university by federal officials based in one or more of the department’s 12 regional offices.
The department intends to send letters offering guidance to virtually all of the nation’s 15,000 school districts and several thousand institutions of post-secondary education, officials said.
The letters will focus on 17 areas of civil rights concern, including possible racial discrimination in student assignments and admissions, in the meting out of discipline, and in access to resources, including qualified teachers. Other areas include possible sex and gender bias in athletics programs, as well as sexual harassment and violence. Other letters will remind districts and colleges of their responsibilities under federal law with regard to disabled students.