The core of the American promise is that all human beings ought to have equal access to prosperity, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender or other aspects of their identity that might have historically closed the doors of opportunity.
Unsurprising for a nation birthed in slavery and in which women could not vote until 1920, our nation has been in perpetual struggle to deliver upon this promise for all its people. This history has been characterized by ebbs and flows, where periods of progress (like Reconstruction) are followed by periods of retrenchment (like the post-Reconstruction nadir when Jim Crow apartheid took root throughout the South).
For students, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights plays a prominent role in ensuring that all schools receiving federal funds (which include virtually all K-12 public schools and the great majority of the country’s universities, public or private) deliver educational services to young people on a non-discriminatory basis. OCR’s success in fulfilling that mission has fluctuated throughout its history and, with unprecedented gaps in opportunity between the haves and have-nots, it is as important now as at any time in the past. For our children to receive the quality education to which they are entitled, it will be vital that OCR vindicates its responsibility as protector of last resort of students’ civil rights.
OCR is responsible for enforcing several civil rights statues that entitle students to non-discriminatory treatment. In particular, OCR enforces statutes that prohibit any school receiving federal funds from discriminating against students on the basis of race, sex, disability, or age. This mandate is inseparable from the capacity of public schools to effectively educate students, as students’ learning is invariably compromised to the degree they are subject to decision-making rooted in stereotypes about their identity, as opposed to their educational needs.
The denial of mainstream educational services to students with disabilities; the tracking of African-American and Latino kids to remedial classes; the provision of extracurricular activities only to boys; the allocation of educational resources to schools in ethnically disparate ways – these practices, among many others, fall within the purview of OCR, and OCR’s effectiveness, or lack thereof, in policing such discriminatory practices is inextricably connected to our students’ ability to be educated well.
Under President Obama, OCR maintained a strong role in civil-rights enforcement. The office stepped in to protect students in several cases of sexual assault, worked to ensure the equal rights of English language learners and students with disabilities to an excellent education, and sought to prevent racial, ethnic and gender discrimination in K-12 schools and higher education campuses throughout the country. From an agreement with Connecticut’s East Hartford Public Schools, where OCR found a failure to provide adequate language services to limited English proficient (LEP) parents and guardians, to resolutions on sexual assault at colleges and universities across the country, including a recently resolved case at the University of Alaska, OCR has played a major role in protecting students.
Over the next four years, OCR should focus on several key issues. First, the Department should uphold its historic role in protecting students from the discriminatory allocation of educational resources. For too long, our most underserved students have gotten shortchanged out of access to a high-quality education – from disparate funding formulas to teacher contract issues. Also, states and localities have often misallocated Title I funds in ways that deny our most vulnerable low-income students access to the resources they need. While Title I supplements state and local funding to ensure low-income students have adequate school resources, some states use Title I funding to supplant local investments, thus leaving low-income children, often racial and ethnic minorities, with access to substantially fewer resources than contemplated by Title I, fueling greater resource inequality. It will be critical for OCR, moving forward, to identify such inequities and fashion appropriate remedies.
Let’s also keep requirements around reporting from the states, especially on the critical issue of school discipline. OCR’s Civil Rights Data Collection has uncovered that 1.6 million students go to a school where there is a sworn law enforcement officer but no school counselor; that in 22 states, physical consequences are still used as a tool for discipline; and that significant implicit bias exists in our schools where, for example, black students in preschool are 3.6 times as likely to be suspended as white students. Without a strong federal role that guides states to report this information, we cannot address these critical disparities.
Now is the time to step up in support for students and families across the country. This work is personal to me – not just as a civil rights attorney, but throughout my life. My mother was senselessly murdered when I was 10, and my father was not present. My grandmother stepped in to be my advocate to push me to get a great education. It’s time for us to be what my grandmother was to me: an advocate. Working together, it’s time refocus on our children and not on chaos and division.
It is urgent that the Trump Administration place our children ahead of politics and do what’s right to ensure that we can deliver on the promise of an excellent education for all children.
Shavar Jeffries is a civil rights attorney and the president of Democrats for Education Reform.