By Citizen Stewart
The US Department of Education’s overburdened Office of Civil Rights must be sweating as they face leadership changes in both their department and in the White House.
Especially when that new leadership will come from Donald Trump’s pool of people not terribly concerned with civil rights.
To be fair, we don’t know what Trump or Betsy DeVos (his education secretary) will do. He said so little about education on the campaign trail besides “common core is a disaster,” we need school choice, and appeals to local control.
He also returned to an old Republican canard: getting rid of the Dept. of Education.
“A lot of people believe the Department of Education should just be eliminated. Get rid of it. If we don’t eliminate it completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach.”
As a practical matter expect that to amounts to nothing. But, the department’s OCR could be in real trouble under Trump’s new regime.
Under President Obama that office gave continuous guidance to states and education officials encouraging them to stay in compliance with civil rights laws. It wasn’t always well received.
Republicans argued that the guidance letters overstepped the authority granted to the Department of Education (which isn’t much) and attempted to regulate how schools approach discipline, gendered restrooms, and teacher salaries – all things they say should be determined locally.
The “local control” argument in education is an American standard. So is federal intervention when people’s civil rights are violated. In the past few years civil rights claims in public schools have grown explosively, and it’s uncertain how those claims will be handled if OCR is substantially weakened.
Consider this from a recent Ed Week article: “The number of annual complaints to the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights more than doubled since the start of President Barack Obama’s administration, increasing from 6,364 in fiscal 2009 to 16,720 in fiscal 2016.”
The article cites a government report detailing “ongoing civil rights issues the department [of education] sees…ranging from teacher and staffing inequities in schools, to chronic absenteeism and racial disparities in school discipline policies.”
In just one state, California, the feds settled nearly 100 cases of discrimination. According to a story in EdSource “in fiscal year 2016, the office reached 99 resolution agreements with school districts across the state.”
The claims resolved in settlements like these aren’t trivial. EdSource says investigators “found that African-American and Latino students in the Lodi Unified School District were disciplined more severely than white students for similar offenses, a special-needs student from Oakland Unified School District was denied his education because of harassment and excessive punishment, and female and male athletes in the Los Angeles Unified School District must have access to comparable facilities.”
Similar cases can be found across the country.
In East Hartford, Connecticut the OCR found district leaders “failed to ensure that LEP parents/guardians had comparable access to information that was provided to non-LEP parents/guardians in English during the enrollment and registration process.”
Minneapolis Public Schools were found to discriminate against black students by maintaining a two-tiered system of disciplinary consequences based on race. The resolution letter from the OCR offers multiple examples through the district.
Here’s one, “At Sheridan, a white kindergarten student was assigned to an alternate instruction room for repeatedly wandering around the classroom and leaving the class, while a black kindergarten student received a half-day out-of-school suspension for leaving the classroom and running through the school.”
While these cases aren’t new (as mentioned above, they have grown during Obama’s presidency), there is fear that Trump’s campaign rhetoric, heavy on racialized sentiments against Mexicans, immigrants, and Muslims, let a new genie out of the bottle. Schools are starting to encounter that genie and expressing fear.
We will have to wait and see how Trump and DeVos approach civil rights abuses in education, but if past is prologue, it isn’t looking good.
Citizen Stewart is a writer for Citizen Ed. An education reform blog.