Arne Duncan to Investigate Civil Rights Failures in Schools

By Julianne Hing Mar 12, 2010

On Monday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech in Selma, Alabama–to coincide with the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday–announcing that the civil rights division of the Department of Education is going to start investigating civil rights transgressions in schools. The Washington Post is reporting that the Office of Civil Rights is planning to conduct 38 so-called "compliance reviews" of more than three dozen issues. Duncan and the OCR’s assistant secretary, Russlynn Ali, acknowledged that civil rights infractions in schools had long gone unpunished. The OCR investigations are meant to determine whether policies are in place to protect students and what impact those policies have on students. Duncan announced that the investigations will focus on discrepancies in unfair disciplining of students of color, and racial disparities in college-prep course offerings in high schools. Duncan showed he’s been doing his homework when he cited troubling statistics–that half the dropouts in the United States come from just twelve percent of high schools. But 75 percent of Black and Latino students come from those schools. That Black students without disabilities are three times as likely to be expelled as their white peers, and that Black students with disabilities are twice as likely to be expelled as their white counterparts. The Wall Street Journal hinted that these investigations would eventually be used to enforce civil rights law among schools that receive federal funding, especially the highly coveted $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" money that is expected to go out to states soon. All this is welcome news, to be sure. But it’s ironic that the same Arne Duncan who wants to defend kids of color and fairness in education also wants to reform schools by bolstering charter schools, a move widely seen as a further disinvestment of public education. Even though charter schools have achieved some serious (and legitimately fantastic) wins for students of color, they’re not the cure-all they’re sometimes credited as being. Indeed, the UCLA Civil Rights Project recently declared charter schools a "civil rights failure." Duncan’s also a big fan of the dramatic tactics that call for the total shutdown of struggling schools and mass firings of teachers. His plan for education reform also includes new teacher pay structures that link pay to performance, and new teacher evaluation methods that judge performance on students’ test scores. But is this the kind of education reform kids need, or just the dismantling of public education? How exactly Duncan expects to hold schools accountable for enforcing civil rights law while he continues to tout education policy that doesn’t help the students of color who need it most is still uncertain.