Civil rights now an education priority

SELMA, Ala. — In a major speech at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed the challenges of ensuring equity, equal educational opportunity and access before a group of students, community leaders and elected officials. After the speech, Duncan joined the group in marching across the bridge to commemorate the infamous “Bloody Sunday” civil rights protest.

“The struggle for equal opportunity in our nation’s schools and universities is not at an end,” Secretary Duncan said. “We will work with schools and enforce laws to ensure that all children, no matter what their race, gender, disability or native origin, have a fair chance at a good future.”

The beatings of peaceful civil rights protesters on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma 45 years ago ultimately led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In his remarks at the bridge, Secretary Duncan outlined ongoing impediments to equal educational opportunity and the administration’s intentions to work with schools and postsecondary institutions to address them.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education plays a critical role in ensuring educational equity by enforcing laws that protect students from discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin, and disability status. Duncan vowed to reinvigorate equity and enforcement activities in OCR, calling education “The civil rights issue of our generation.”

“Civil rights laws require vigorous enforcement not just because they are the law of the land but also because the data paint a stark picture of educational inequality,” Duncan said, citing lower high school graduation and college completion rates for students of color.

Specific OCR activities include issuing guidance letters to school districts and postsecondary institutions around issues of fairness and equity; conducting compliance reviews to ensure that all students have equal access to educational opportunities, such as college-prep curriculum or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) classes; and reviewing disciplinary policies of districts and schools to ensure that they are administered fairly. The office also provides technical assistance and outreach to parents, community groups and school districts that are seeking to increase equity and promote diversity.

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali linked her office’s equity agenda to the larger education reform agenda of the administration, saying, “Diversity remains an important goal in a global society like ours, but equity is an economic imperative and a moral obligation. All children — no matter where they live and what their background — need a good education. Until America closes the achievement gap for all students, we still have a lot of work to do.”


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