Trump, DeVos should preserve Office of Civil Rights to safeguard students

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The following op-ed is cross-posted from the GetSchooled blog

By Arne Duncan

President Trump recently declared education to be “the civil rights issue of our time.”

I strongly agree. To learn, every child has the right to be who they are at school and to feel protected from discrimination, abuse and injustice. This is not the case for far too many children across our country.

The federal government has a long history of deferring to states and school districts on educational matters like standards, curriculum, funding and day-to-day operations. But when it comes to protecting students, federal law is clear: Civil rights are paramount.

Sadly, states and local school districts have a long history of valuing some students more than others. A history of providing more—more spending, more high quality teachers, more advanced courses – to the children of the powerful than to those of everybody else. A history of excluding those who are different, especially if they are more challenging—or more expensive—to educate.

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 quality education to every child, in every classroom, in every state.

We wish such oversight were no longer necessary. In Georgia alone, there are some heart-wrenching examples.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights investigated a Georgia school district (not named to protect the identity of the student involved) where a student who wore a hijab said she was the target of verbal and physical harassment by her classmates, including being called a “terrorist.” The student eventually left the school because the district did not address the hostile climate of the school and made no effort to extend counseling to the student even though she was distraught over the harassment. With federal intervention, the district created new policies on harassment, provided training to teachers and administrators and created a climate survey for students to determine what else needed to be addressed.

In 2015, OCR investigated allegations that Wilcox County Schools discriminated in the recruitment and hiring of black teachers. During investigation, OCR learned that the district employed only 9 black teachers, out of 102 teachers total, even though there was a much larger number of black teachers living in the county or in surrounding counties and the student population in the district is was 36 percent black. Through federal intervention, the district agreed to revamp its recruitment and hiring policies.

In 2014, a student in Rockdale County Schools was removed from the district’s AVID college readiness program because he had a disability and was told that students with disabilities couldn’t participate in the program. After OCR opened an investigation, the district agreed to not only allow the student to re-enroll in the program, but it also sent information on AVID to other students with disabilities in the district who were discouraged from applying because of their disabilities.

These are not isolated problems, and they are not unique to Georgia.

According 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 that 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 as those without. Publishing these data has inspired action on both these fronts, and helped lead the way to a 20 percent reduction in school suspensions nationwide.

The Trump administration has repeatedly implied that OCR has overstepped its boundaries in enforcing the law. At various times, President TrumpAttorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have signaled that enforcing federal civil rights laws is “best left to states.”

I strongly disagree.

Leaving enforcement of civil rights laws to states will breed chaos, undermine the education of millions of children, and subject students of every age to abuse, neglect, indifference and outright racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant hostility. The Trump administration has no authority to simply abdicate responsibility to enforce civil rights laws.

I join with a coalition of more than 200 civil rights organizations to call on 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.

Our children deserve better.