Duncan will pressure schools to enforce civil rights laws

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 2010

Education Secretary Arne Duncan plans to announce Monday that his agency is ramping up enforcement of civil rights laws in schools and colleges, a move that seeks to draw a contrast with the policies of his Republican predecessors.

In a speech drafted for an appearance at a civil rights landmark in Selma, Ala., Duncan said the department's Office for Civil Rights expects to issue a series of guidance letters to educators to address "issues of fairness and equity." He said the department will also announce in coming weeks and months several enforcement actions to ensure that students have equal access to a college-prep curriculum, advanced courses, and classes in math and science.

"The truth is that, in the last decade, the 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," Duncan said in the draft speech. "But that is about to change."

Duncan is expected to speak at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where civil rights marchers were beaten by state and local police in March 1965.

A former senior education official in the George W. Bush administration disputed the suggestion that under Republican leadership the agency was not vigilant on civil rights.

"The Bush administration in the educational context had a very good record on civil rights," said Stephanie J. Monroe, who was assistant education secretary for civil rights from 2006 to 2009.

"During the three years that I was there, I think we did quite a bit," she added.

Monroe said her office focused on swift responses to allegations of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability or age and initiated "compliance reviews" in areas that had a significant volume of complaints. Disability rights enforcement emerged as a priority, she said.

With about 600 employees and 12 field offices, the Office for Civil Rights is one of the largest units in the department. Its annual budget is $103 million.

"You adhere very much to the spirit and the letter of the law," Monroe said. "That should not depend on who is sitting on Pennsylvania Avenue. It should be consistent."

Monroe's successor is Russlynn H. Ali, who came to the Obama administration from the nonprofit organization Education Trust, which works on behalf of disadvantaged students.

Ali said in an interview Friday that "we are weaving equity into all that we do" and that her office would examine potential cases for evidence of discrimination through "disparate impact" against certain classes of students on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex or disability.

Ali said the department plans to initiate 38 compliance reviews this year. There were 29 initiated last year, she said, and 42 in 2008. But she said the depth of the reviews will be "much greater than in the past."

Please follow the Post's Education coverage on Facebook, Twitter or our Education and Higher Education pages. Bookmark them!

© 2010 The Washington Post Company