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There’s a New Sheriff in Town

Written by Sean McCollum on 31 March 2010.

“Few civil rights are as central to the cause of human freedom as equal educational opportunity.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered that remark earlier this month in announcing his department’s renewed commitment to civil rights in American classrooms. He also put the nation’s schools on notice: The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights was back on the case. It has been missing in action for nearly a decade, creating either uneven law enforcement or willful injustice.

What does this actually mean for institutions of learning? In the coming weeks and months, nearly all school districts, colleges, and universities in the U.S. will receive letters from the Department of Education offering guidance on 17 areas of interest. They range from racial discrimination in disciplinary actions to equitable access to decent teachers.

This year, more than three dozen schools are expected get the dubious distinction of undergoing a “compliance review,” says Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary of education for civil rights. “But the big difference is not in the number of the reviews we intend to carry out, but in their complexity and depth,” she told The New York Times. As a rule, compliance reviews involve a visit by federal investigators. These officials probe complaints and statistics that may indicate patterns of inequality tied to race, ethnicity, gender or disability.

North Carolina’s Wayne County schools, where “separate and unequal” is alive and well, may receive one of Ali’s first visits. The insidious “re-segregation” of that district offers a damning example of the type of educational injustice that continues to undercut the opportunities of poor and minority students. This rural area is evenly split between black and white residents. But its district includes one school, Goldsboro High, that is more than 80 percent poor and 99 percent black. The district’s five other high schools do not have near that level of poverty or segregation. As much as such districts might wish for the “Good Old Days” of not-so-benign neglect, thankfully there is a new sheriff mounting up, and his deputies actually care about fairness and justice in the lives of our school kids.