Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday the federal government will become more vigilant to make sure students have equal access and opportunity to everything ranging from college prep classes to science and engineering programs.
"We are going to reinvigorate civil rights enforcement," Duncan said on a historic Selma bridge to commemorate the 45th anniversary of a bloody confrontation between voting rights demonstrators and state troopers.
Duncan said the department also will issue a series of guidelines to public schools and colleges addressing fairness and equity issues.
"The truth is that, in the last decade, the office for civil rights has not been as vigilant as it should be. That is about to change," Duncan said.
Duncan spoke to a crowd about 400 people on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in observance of "Bloody Sunday," the day in 1965 when several hundred civil rights protesters were beaten by state troopers as they crossed the span over the Alabama River, bound for Montgomery.
Making a ‘colorblind society a reality’
The demonstrators were stopped that day, but thousands more arrived along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. two weeks later for what became known as the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march.
"With a strict adherence to statutory and case law, we are going to make Dr. King's dream of a colorblind society a reality."
High school student D'wan Lewis, who is black, said he liked what he heard.
"I don't think we have the same opportunities as other schools," said Lewis, 18, a student at Keith High, a small, rural school outside Selma. "We need more materials. Really, we just need a better school."
The Education Department expects to conduct 38 compliance reviews around 40 different issues this year, said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights.
"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 broader 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.
Duncan also highlighted 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.
- 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.
Ali said as part of the new effort, schools receiving federal funding will receive letters on topics covering everything from food allergies to law enforcement procedures for victims of sexual violence.
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.
‘We haven't seen anything yet’
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, said he has seen more collaboration 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.
"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.
"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."