One of the U.S. Department of Education’s primary roles has been the protection of students’ civil rights. The federal government’s role in education emerged after the Civil Rights Movement, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education which began the dismantling of de jure school segregation, and the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 as a centerpiece of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Later came the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe, that protects the rights of children of undocumented immigrants to a free public education. Part of the reason for the U.S. Department of Education has been to step in when states neglect to protect students’ rights at school. The Department’s record hasn’t been perfect; some administrations have more fully embraced the Department’s mission to protect children’s rights.
While the Obama administration brought us some politically (and some believe morally) questionable programs like Race to the Top, it is generally acknowledged that under Arne Duncan’s leadership and then John King’s, the U.S. Department of Education—through its Office of Civil Rights—aggressively pursued injustices reported around racial discrimination, the disparate impact of school discipline plans, services for disabled students, and violations of the rights of LGBT students.
What is likely to happen around civil rights enforcement in the Trump administration, with the Department of Education led by Betsy DeVos? This is the subject of an interview conducted by journalist Jennifer Berkshire with Derek Black, a law professor in South Carolina, author, and blogger. Berkshire’s interview appears on her own blog. It was also reprinted by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post on Monday.
Derek Black believes we are likely to see “a rollback of civil rights enforcement in education under Trump and DeVos.” He has been watching Betsy DeVos: “At her confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos was reluctant to take an affirmative stance on enforcing students’ disability rights. Since taking the post, she has remarked that she could not ‘think of any’ current pressing civil rights issues where the federal government has a role to play…. Even if they do not rescind other department positions on integration, school discipline, English language learners, and school resources, they are very unlikely to enforce existing regulations and policy guidance.”
Black believes, however, that public engagement around a range of civil rights protections in schools during the Obama era will keep these issues very much alive during the Trump-DeVos years: “The school-to-prison pipeline is a household word now. More districts are voluntarily pursuing integration. California is bringing back bilingual education. And parents are fed up with standardized testing. On a host of issues, there are local advocates and local politicians that are going to do the right thing regardless of what the Department of Education does. No doubt about it, there is a storm coming, but there are a lot of hard-working and committed people on the ground.”
Black authored a book on disparate treatment in school discipline policy. In his interview with Berkshire, he explains why he thinks zero-tolerance discipline policies not only frequently violate the rights of students who are expelled and suspended, but also affect the climate of a school: “(A)verage student achievement is lower in schools with high numbers of suspensions and expulsions. Part of that lower achievement comes from the kids who’ve been excluded. They’re almost necessarily going to score lower because they’re not in school and they’re falling behind. But does it really affect the other kids? The assumption is that if you get the troublemakers out of there. the other kids will do better. But when you suspend Johnny for what his peers perceive to be petty or unjustified, that has a negative effect on the good kids too. It’s not as though high suspension rates turn A students into F students. But d0es it undermine their perception of the school environment? The data would suggest so. Moreover if the environment is punitive rather than nurturing, it has a tendency to become chaotic and that chaos is going to undermine the academic achievement of the good students too.”
Black is particularly concerned about the so-called “no excuses” charter schools: “I think the difference between the charter system and the public system… is that the public system doesn’t really get rid of its students; they come back. The charter school doesn’t have the responsibility of serving the community and all of its children, so that what it’s trying to do is sort of slash and burn… It’s not that they’ve made the students who are left perform better, but that they’ve lopped off their low performers.”
Black concludes: “The one thing that scares me is that I’m not sure that we’ve entirely got the conversation about discipline framed in the right way. There is still this gut instinct that there are bad kids and good kids and that the bad kids are messing things up for the good kids… One of the things I try to argue in the book is that better discipline policy is about better education for everyone.”