Kids’ civil rights need federal protection, not just local

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The following op-ed is cross-posted from Mercury News

By John B. King Jr. and Catherine E. Lhamon

In his first joint address to Congress last month, President Trump declared education to be “the civil rights issue of our time.”

We strongly agree that ensuring every American child has equal access to quality education is essential to our nation’s future. Sadly, today, far too many children do not have that equal access.

That’s why Congress has repeatedly passed education and civil rights laws that require the U.S. Department of Education to protect vulnerable students and monitor the progress of states and districts in providing a quality education to every child.

We wish such oversight were no longer necessary. But too many states and districts either continue outright discriminatory practices or remain passive while hostile environments flourish on their campuses. A few examples from this 2016 report show why the job of protecting young people in this country is by no means done.

■   In 2013, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil  Rights (OCR) investigated a gang rape at a high school in Richmond, California. That review found pervasive sexual harassment of girls, beginning in elementary schools and increasing in middle and high schools, with adults in the district paying far too little attention.

■   Meanwhile, in Oakland, a 9-year-old student with autism was restrained on 92 separate occasions by staff in the private school to which the district had assigned him. The investigation showed that the child had been held face down on the floor for a total of 2,200 minutes over the course of 10 months. The agreement required the district to cease contracting with schools that condone prone restraint.

These are not isolated cases. These are real issues affecting real students  across the country.

And it’s not just about investigations; it’s about shining a spotlight on ongoing problems.

For example, thanks to data from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, Americans learned that high schools enrolling concentrations of black and Latino students are less likely to offer courses in calculus, physics and chemistry than those whose students are predominantly white.

We also learned that black students are almost four times as likely as white students to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended as those without.

Publishing data has spurred action on both these fronts and helped lead the way to a 20 percent reduction in school suspensions nationwide.

Our civil rights laws reflect American values of fairness, equality and justice. But those laws must be enforced.

The Trump administration has repeatedly implied that Office of Civil Rights has overstepped its boundaries.  At various times, President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have signaled that enforcing federal civil rights laws is “best left to states.”

We disagree. Leaving enforcement of civil rights laws to states will breed chaos and undermine the education of millions of children. What’s more, it will subject students of every age to abuse, neglect, indifference and outright racism, sexism and anti-immigrant hostility, among other harms.

The federal government defers to states and school districts when it comes to issues like standards and curriculum—and rightly so. But when it comes to the civil rights of students, we cannot simply hope that states and districts will do the right thing.

More than 200 civil rights organizations have called for Congress, the Trump administration and Americans everywhere to defend our civil rights and urge strong, uncompromising enforcement of our laws. This is not a political choice. This is a matter of basic American freedoms and core American values.

John B. King Jr. served as United States Education Secretary in the Obama Administration and is president and CEO of Education Trust. Catherine E. Lhamon served as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education and chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. They wrote this for The Mercury News.