Duncan To Step Up Civil Rights Enforcement
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Thousands of people gathered yesterday in Selma, Alabama to remember a day known as Bloody Sunday. Forty-five years ago on March 7th, 1965, state troopers armed with clubs and tear gas attacked civil rights demonstrators on Selma's Edmond Pettus Bridge. In Selma yesterday, about 10,000 people participated in a recreation of that march. Today, the Obama administration will mark the occasion a different way.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be in Selma today to make a major announcement. The Education Department is launching 38 investigations into possible civil rights violations by schools and colleges in over 30 states. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: There's a reason the U.S. Education Department choose to unveil its civil rights agenda on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to remind Americans how much has changed for the better and what the federal government has yet to do to protect children from discrimination.
Ms. ROSALYN ALI (Assistant Secretary, Office for Civil Rights): Claudio, the Office for Civil Rights is back in business.
SANCHEZ: That's Rosalyn Ali, assistant secretary in the Office for Civil Rights. Every year, she says her office gets about 6,300 complaints, violations that include suspending and disciplining black children more often and more harshly than other children, ignoring the needs of non-English speaking students, and denying students access to college preparatory and advance placement programs, just to name a few. The results, says Ali, are tragic.
Ms. ALI: African-American students are six times less likely to be college and career-ready in biology than their white counterparts, or four times less likely to be college-ready in Algebra. We see districts where only 3 percent of high school English language learners are performing at grade level in math and in English.
SANCHEZ: Ali says Latinos and blacks are also more likely to get the worst, least experienced teachers. Her task...
Ms. ALI: Conduct 38 investigations around 40 different issues under our jurisdiction.
SANCHEZ: School districts and states that have been targeted may not know for weeks who they are. Education Department officials want to carefully choreograph these investigations so that they're not perceived as lowering the boom without first reaching out to school officials and getting their cooperation.
How the black community views these investigations is important, too. Many black parents no longer care if their children sit next to white children, as long as they get the same educational resources and opportunities.
Latinos, on the other hand, pose a very different set of civil rights challenges. Tom Saenz of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund says in some states, Latinos can't even register for school without proof of their immigration status.
Mr. TOM SAENZ (Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund): Which has been unlawful since 1982 in a United States Supreme Court decision.
SANCHEZ: And yet it happens all the time says, Saenz. As for the desegregation of schools, Signs agrees. Like most black parents, Latinos just want good teachers and safe neighborhood schools, where their children at least have a shot at catching up with their white peers.
Mr. SAENZ: The achievement gap is the number one civil rights issue. It's more important than integration.
SANCHEZ: That may very well be true. But Education Department lawyers say the achievement gap is the result of an opportunity gap. And that is what the department's investigations are going to tackle more vigorously than ever.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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