The Obama administration plans to toughen civil rights enforcement in the nation's schools with a broad review touching on everything from academics to discipline.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the initiative Monday during a speech in Selma, Ala., where he helped commemorate the 45th anniversary of a bloody confrontation between voting rights demonstrators and law enforcement. He spoke from the bridge that marchers had crossed when the attack took place in 1965.
Duncan said the Education Department's civil rights office hasn't been as vigilant as needed in the past decade.
The agency will soon begin conducting reviews to determine whether students have equal access to opportunities, including college preparation classes.
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The federal Department of Education wants to intensify its civil rights enforcement efforts in schools around the country, including a deeper look at issues ranging from programs for immigrant students learning English to equal access to college preparatory courses.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan was to speak Monday in Alabama to outline the department's goals. Duncan was there to commemorate the 45th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" — the day in 1965 when several hundred civil rights protesters were beaten by state troopers on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge during a voting rights march.
"Despite how far we've come as a country over the last 45 years, we know there are still ongoing barriers to equal educational opportunity in this country," Duncan told reporters before his speech.
The department is expecting to conduct 38 compliance reviews around 40 different issues this year, said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department.
"For us, this is very much about working to meet the president's goal, that by 2020 we will regain our status in the world as the number one producer of college graduates," Ali told The Associated Press.
Although the investigations have been conducted before, the department's Office of Civil Rights is looking to do more complicated and broad reviews that will look not just at whether procedures are in place, but at the impact district practices have on students of one race or another, and if student needs are being met.
In his prepared remarks, Duncan highlights several jarring inequities: At the end of high school, white students are about six times more likely to be college-ready in biology than black students, and more than four times as likely to be prepared for college algebra.
Other statistics he will highlight in Selma:
— A quarter of all students drop out before their graduation, and half of those come from 12 percent of the nation's high schools. Those roughly 2,000 schools produce a majority of the dropouts among black and Latino students.
— Black students without disabilities are more than three times as likely to be expelled as white students, and those with disabilities more than twice as likely to be expelled or suspended — numbers which Duncan says testify to racial gaps that are "hard to explain away by reference to the usual suspects."
— Students from low-income families who graduate from high school scoring in the top testing quartile are no more likely to attend college than the lowest-scoring students from wealthy families.
"This is the civil rights issue of our generation," Duncan said, adding that the Office of Civil Rights has not been as vigilant as it should have been in the past decade.
In addition to the reviews, the department will also be sending guidance letters to all districts and post-secondary institutions receiving federal funding. Ali said the topics cover everything from food allergies to law enforcement procedures for victims of sexual violence and equitable education spending.
The Education Department will work with districts and states to find a voluntary resolution if a violation is found. In extreme cases, Ali said funds could be withheld or ended.
Duncan's visit sparked some controversy among some black politicians who were upset that the Education secretary picked Robert E. Lee High School — a school named after the Confederate general and where its principal at the time had opposed King and the 1965 voting rights march — to hold his news conference. Democratic Rep. Alvin Holmes of Montgomery had objected, but Duncan refused to move to another location. Agency officials said that the school is now majority black and that its current principal was 2 years old at the time of the march.
Instead, Duncan added a school to his visit — Martin Luther King Elementary School — and met with fifth-graders there. He also met with Holmes and another black lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Thad McClammy of Montgomery. The education secretary did not comment on their discussion, but Holmes said he explained to Duncan that it "wouldn't be right" to visit only Lee and not a school in a predominantly black neighborhood.
McClammy said Duncan asked why Alabama legislators oppose charter schools — a measure by Republican Gov. Bob Riley to create charter schools was killed recently in House and Senate committees. McClammy said he told Duncan, an advocate of charter schools, that more assurance is needed that such schools will be available to all and not become private schools for whites.
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, said he has seen more collaboration and communication with civil rights organizations under the Obama administration, along with a renewed focus on ensuring the civil rights tenets of No Child Left Behind are being enforced, among other measures.
"They have been very deliberate about enforcing our nation's civil rights laws in the area of education," he said.
Others said they are still waiting for stepped up enforcement to take place.
"We haven't seen anything yet," said Raul Gonzalez, director of legislative affairs of the National Council of La Raza. "But I can tell you there's a lot of hope in the civil rights community that we are going to get some really good enforcement around a variety of issues, including education."
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