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Answers to 3 Questions on Civil Rights and Federal Education Policy

1. Is the main federal K-12 law a civil rights law?

This question about the Elementary and Secondary Education Act can provoke all kinds of different answers and provide a good history lesson. Some, such as former Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., say the answer is yes. His argument is that ESEA is intended to prevent discrimination against disadvantaged students and children of color in the education system, and should be used to promote their advancement.

But others say that the law does not confer any new rights (there is no fundamental right to an education recognized in the U.S. Constitution), and that President Johnson intended it to be an anti-poverty program when he signed it. The question also touches on the common tension between those who believe the federal government should be used aggressively to promote students’ civil rights, and those who believe local education officials are in the best position make key decisions about a wide array of policies, including students’ rights.

2. What are some controversial civil rights issues in education?

The Education Department plays an important role in protecting the civil rights of students handles civil rights protections for students is one of its most important duties and it’s always been a controversial one to a certain extent. But in recent years, several education civil rights issues have become more prominent, in part due to initiatives from the Obama administration, resistance to those, and the reversal of those initiatives by the Trump administration.

One such initiative dealt with racial disparities in student discipline. Another dealt with the rights of transgender students at school. Still a third dealt with schools’ responsibilities to investigate charges of sexual misconduct under Title IX, which is largely a higher education issue but affects K-12 schools too. Those are far from the only issues that can become very difficult politically. But they illustrate the range of challenging policy questions associated with students’ rights, disparities in outcomes, and balancing federal intervention and pressure with local solutions in schools.

3. What is the role of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights?

The Office for Civil Rights – or OCR if you want to yield to the Beltway weakness for acronyms – receives about $130 million a year. But as the agency that investigates civil rights complaints, it can play a prominent role in how such issues play out in schools.

For example, under the Obama administration, OCR was tasked with considering whether an individual complaint also pointed to systemic discrimination of some kind. However, the Trump administration changed this policy, and said that instead, investigators should look for broader discrimination “only where it is appropriate to do so in light of the allegations or based on facts ascertained in the investigation.”

There is also tension over the issue of advocacy groups that file relatively large numbers of complaints with OCR; they are sometimes called “mass filers.” Early in the Trump administration, OCR directed investigators to dismiss multiple complaints from the same source. However, the administration subsequently dropped that policy.