Phyllis P. McClure dies; civil rights activist exposed misuse of Title I funds

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; B06

Phyllis P. McClure, 72, a civil rights activist who spent more than four decades advocating for educational equity for poor and disadvantaged children, died May 17 of pancreatic cancer at her home in Washington.

Once an aspiring journalist, Ms. McClure joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1969. She immediately used her penchant for muckraking to illuminate the widespread misuse of federal funds meant to boost educational opportunities for the country's neediest students.

The money was part of the new Title I program, created under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The slim volume that Ms. McClure wrote in 1969 with Ruby Martin -- "Title I of ESEA: Is It Helping Poor Children?" -- showed how millions of dollars across the country were being used by school districts to make purchases -- such as a Baptist church building in Detroit and 18 portable swimming pools in Memphis -- that had little to do with helping impoverished students.

The authors charged that money meant for poor children was being used illegally by school districts as a welcome infusion of extra cash to meet overhead expenses, raise teacher pay and other such general aid. In addition, they wrote, districts were using Title I funds to continue racial segregation by offering black children free food, medical care, shoes and clothes as long as they remained in predominantly black schools.

The investigation helped prompt a flurry of efforts by Congress and what was then the Office of Education to monitor the use of Title I money -- the largest chunk of federal education spending -- and ensure that it was being targeted for low-income children.

"Because of this report and all the press it got, there was a real move to reform," said Ruth Mitchell, a friend of Ms. McClure's who retired from the Education Trust, a Washington education-reform group. "They just let off a bombshell, and everybody went scurrying to deal with it."

Ms. McClure worked at the legal and education defense fund until 1994. She became an expert in dissecting Byzantine school-district finances to find out whether poor children were being served by the money that had been marked for them. She continued to advocate for the enforcement of Title I as well as for school desegregation, giving workshops on Title I for black parents and community groups and filing complaints about the abuse of federal funds.

After 1994, Ms. McClure worked as a consultant to school districts, foundations and watchdog groups.

Despite her fierce support of the Title I program's aims, Ms. McClure was quick to say that it had not succeeded in closing the achievement gap between poor children and their wealthier peers -- and in fact had perhaps contributed to a dual system of education, in which poor children were systematically subjected to low expectations, watered-down curricula and inexperienced teachers.

"I'm no apologist for this Title I program. I'm a critic," she told Bill O'Reilly on the "O'Reilly Factor" cable television talk show. "The reason I think that Title I has not been able to achieve much is that the decisions on how the money is spent are left at the local level."

She cheered the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002, the first time the federal government threatened to withhold funds from schools that could not show that their students were making significant achievement gains. And then she resumed her watchdog role, coauthoring a 2006 report showing that despite their claims to the contrary, most states had failed to ensure that their teachers were highly qualified, as the new education law required.

"She was just a stalwart, with unyielding convictions about what's right for poor kids and kids of color," said Russlynn H. Ali, the assistant secretary of education for civil rights.

Phyllis Porter was born in Berkeley, Calif., on Jan. 18, 1938. She graduated in 1960 from the University of Connecticut, where she edited the college newspaper. After receiving a master's degree in history from the University of California at Berkeley, she served with the Peace Corps in Nigeria for two years and later received a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University's Kennedy School.

In 1964, Ms. McClure joined the civil rights office in the Office of Education and helped with some of the federal government's first efforts to enforce desegregation. She transferred to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1966.

A resident of Capitol Hill, she tutored students at Payne Elementary School in the District and volunteered at the National Archives. In retirement, she wrote a book, "Jeanes Teachers: A View into Black Education in the Jim Crow South."

Her marriage to John McClure ended in divorce. Survivors include a sister.

In 2001, before No Child Left Behind became law, she praised President George W. Bush and his proposal for wide-ranging education reform.

"He's trying to shake up some of these low-performing schools," she said. "The problem is, federal money alone won't do it."

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