• by Norma V. Cantu • IDRA Newsletter • May 1998 • 

Many students in US schools are reporting to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the US Department of Education that they have experienced discrimination because of their race, national origin, gender, language background or disability. OCR consists of 12 enforcement offices with a headquarters in Washington, D.C. It receives roughly 5,000 administrative complaints each year from students, staff and parents who allege illegal discrimination against students. We have no way to document unreported matters involving discrimination, of course, but one indicator that schools and colleges are faced with problems of alleged discrimination and are working to avoid discrimination may be the level of requests OCR receives for technical assistance – 500 calls a week.

The good news is that, without exploring the question as to whether discrimination has occurred, our office has been able to reach agreements to positive solutions in many of the cases filed with OCR. The resolutions, which satisfy the school and the student, were reached promptly, often in the same semester that the complaints were filed.

The bad news is that far too many of the complaints filed with OCR are due to, in my words, “old-fashioned and traditional” discrimination. These complaints signal that equal access to education is still being denied despite the many federal laws have been in place for a quarter of a century. What do I mean by “old-fashioned” problems? One example is the disabled high school senior who was informed by her school that her graduation diploma would be mailed to her home because the graduation ceremony would be held in an auditorium that was not wheelchair accessible. This exclusion from the benefits of education should not exist 25 years after the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against students on the basis of disability.

Why do civil rights problems persist? One suggestion is that local staff and leadership turnover contributes to the need for constant reminders about what the civil rights laws do and do not require. That is a plausible explanation. It has also been suggested that federal and state civil rights agencies have not enforced the laws adequately. If the expectation is that the agencies will require quotas, that is not a realistic request. We do not enforce quotas. The expectation is that we follow the people-intensive task of tackling small concerns before they grow into large problems, but this type of civil rights enforcement has not been consistent because appropriations have been uncertain. A third suggestion that I personally reject is that parents and the board members they elect to represent them just do not care about providing equity in education.

Assuming that the reason old-fashioned discrimination against students continues is insufficient training of new decision makers about practices and policies that serve students equitably, let us look at what is required under federal statutes.

Ending Discrimination

In recent years, Congress has passed five broad federal statutes that protect students from discrimination. These laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, age, sex, race and national origin. A few people criticize the federal civil rights laws as weak because the laws require equal opportunities for students, not equal results. These critics point out that vulnerable children need guarantees of success, not merely a chance to succeed. I do not agree. All children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can learn when given a chance.

It is undisputed that the federal laws do work to open doors. For example, 25 years ago, before Title IX was passed, girls were often excluded from educational programs and benefits solely because schools tolerated gender barriers to educational opportunities. Today, because of that law, women have greater access to high school math and science courses, high school and college sports, college degrees, and faculty positions. Men have also gained access to traditionally women-dominated fields.

Similarly, students with disabilities have overcome substantial barriers to educational opportunities as a result of the civil rights laws. In 1975, more than 1 million children with disabilities were excluded from public school. Today, access to degrees for students with disabilities is similar to that of students without disabilities.

Removing discriminatory barriers is not easy. In the past four years, in partnership with state leadership, OCR has produced substantial educational opportunities. To list a few examples, OCR, in state partnerships, has:

  • removed barriers statewide to participation by minorities and limited English-speaking adults in state-run vocational rehabilitation programs in California,
  • removed barriers statewide to participation by minorities in gifted and talented programs in Georgia, and
  • removed barriers statewide to participation by minorities in high-track, accelerated courses in Louisiana and Mississippi.

These changes in expanding access to education open opportunities to thousands of students nationally.

Creating Equity

Federal laws and their enforcement cannot by themselves overcome all of the educational variables. Some students may see the open door, yet not step in. No federal agency mandates regular daily attendance, or ensures that homework is completed, or obligates a student to take certain challenging elective courses. All the federal civil rights laws can do is remove discriminatory barriers. It is then up to students, teachers and parents to contribute their share of the educational partnership in order to move ahead.

The New Civil Rights Challenge

In the next century, the challenge will be to continue the battle against discrimination and, at the same time, pursue strategies to promote educational excellence throughout the nation. As Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has often said, ensuring access to a quality education should be considered a civil right of the 1990s. Our country’s students deserve no less.

Norma V. Cantu is the assistant secretary for civil rights at the US Department of Education. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]