Monday, March 13, 2017
Is the Historic Role of the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in Jeopardy or Simply Undergoing an Expected Shift?
James Murphy's new article in the Atlantic offers a excellent and compelling overview of the Office for Civil Rights. He details the various people who have headed the Office over the last fifty years and the major policies they have pursued. He also contrasts the policies of the administrations that have transitioned into and out of the office. With this backdrop, he suggests that major changes from the new administration are the norm for this Office. How far those changes will or will not go, however, is not yet clear.
Under DeVos, the guidance on sexual violence will almost certainly be modified, if not withdrawn, as will the transgender guidance law. So, too, might the guidance on discipline, seclusion, and restraint, in particular. Seclusion (removing a student from a classroom and putting her in isolation) and restraint (restricting a student’s movement, often by pinning him to the floor) have been used disproportionately against students with disabilities and African American students. President Trump’s rhetoric about “American carnage” and “bad dudes” suggests he is more likely to embrace the “zero-tolerance” policies.
Justice is slow, childhood is fleeting, and the task of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is to make those schedules match. Information and transparency are key to attaining that goal. In addition to making its resolutions part of the public record so other school leaders could learn from them and increasing its outreach to schools through technical assistance (through, for example, workshops, flyers, and community meetings), the OCR under Obama made the data it is required to collect about civil rights in primary and secondary schools more easily accessible, comprehensive, and public-facing. Now, state and local governments, schools, community organizations, journalists, and citizens could use them. The OCR has used it biennial CRDC reports to highlight disparities in such areas as discipline, college and career readiness, and absenteeism.
Repeatedly in interviews, civil-rights stakeholders expressed their support of the OCR’s decision to make the CRDC more public-facing and to use it as a tool for shining a light on civil-rights issues. Liz King of the Leadership Conference points to this change as evidence that “leadership matters. From Arne Duncan, we saw a huge premium on data transparency” and a “strong emphasis on CRDC.” They also expressed concern that this could change in the Trump administration. Monique Dixon, the deputy director of policy and senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, praised the Obama administration’s transformation of the CRDC into a mechanism for confirming the scale of civil-rights abuse, but she worries that the new administration could mean a “return to inactivity.”
The staff that created the reports will remain in place at the OCR, but it will be up to Secretary DeVos and her assistant secretary for civil rights whether they will carry out that task. It is easy to imagine the argument from the incoming administration: that the extent of the data collection places an unreasonable burden on schools, and so it needs to be scaled back. When I asked Gerard Robinson, an adviser to Trump's education-policy team, about this possibility, he suggested that the changes made to the CRDC were part of Secretary Duncan’s “data-driven vision,” which he attributed to his having been a superintendent. Robinson asserted that Trump “is also a data guy. Betsy DeVos is also a data person.” No data were provided to back up these claims.