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Professor and colleagues offer educational recommendations for Biden administration

Kathryn Kao

January 7, 2021

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During the last four years of the Trump administration, several key civil right provisions in education to help diversify public schools were rolled back. As a result, president-elect Joe Biden and his administration will need to work on restoring many civil right provisions created during the Obama administration.

Elizabeth DeBray, a professor in the UGA Mary Frances Early College of Education’s department of lifelong education, administration and policy, and her colleagues provided several suggestions to help the new administration during this critical time in a policy memo titled, “An Agenda for Restoring Civil Rights in K-12 Federal Education Policy.”

“At a time when parents’ interest in diverse schools is growing, the federal government should support voluntary local efforts to diversify public schools,” said DeBray. “Despite clear evidence that students of color experience harsher school discipline and less access to challenging classes than white students, federal investigations of discrimination by the Office of Civil Rights have backed away from examining such racial disparities in how schools treat students.”

Released by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), the policy brief outlines six suggestions to restore civil rights protections in schools.

  • Voluntary school integration guidance. The new administration should restore key Obama-era civil rights provisions related to voluntary school integration as an initial step, while offering more substantive changes and additional guidance.
  • Civil rights incentives concerning school choice. Voluntary incentives should be provided to create racially diverse and equitable schools, and school choice policies should be aligned with civil rights goals. Magnet and charter schools must work in concert with traditional public systems to meet diversity goals.
  • Anti-discrimination enforcement. The federal government should return to the Obama administration’s practice of examining districtwide statistics and practices when individuals file discrimination complaints.
  • Restore individual rights to file disparate impact lawsuits. The administration should provide more resources for enforcement around civil rights violations, such as supporting the passage of the Equity and Inclusion Enforcement Act, which restores the private right of action for civil lawsuits claiming disparate impact under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • Provide necessary resources for underfunded schools. Necessary resources must be provided for underfunded schools. At a time when local and state governments are facing substantially lowered revenue, funding should shift toward approaches that provide support for students, including social workers, extracurricular activities, school psychologists and guidance counselors.
  • A federal title for health. States and districts need the federal government to support equitable, safe and quality schooling during COVID-19 and in its eventual aftermath. A federal title will ensure stable funding for school nurses, mental health and guidance counselors and other benefits necessary for public schools to survive and flourish.

DeBray and her co-authors proposed these suggestions based on evidence from a research study funded by the Spencer Foundation. Since 2017, the team has been tracking whether and how the Trump administration has reversed Obama-era policies around race and educational civil rights.

In addition to keeping track of specific policy changes, the team conducted interviews with members of the executive branch, former Obama administration officials and Congressional aides and representatives of interest groups and think tanks. The team also collected document and media reports.

“The steps reflect what we think is most vital about restoring the role of civil rights in education, while also attending to the myriad health-related, but also emotional and mental health resources that students will need when the pandemic ends. And it needs to be a bipartisan commitment, tough though that is to secure right now. If ever there were a time to respond to deep educational needs, it is this moment.”

The authors of the policy memo—which include professor Kathryn McDermott from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, professor Janelle Scott from the University of California Berkeley, associate professor Genevieve Siegel-Hawley from Virginia Commonwealth University, and professor Erica Frankenberg from Pennsylvania State University—point out that a broad coalition of civil rights organizations can help the Department of Education under the Biden administration support and sustain a robust civil rights agenda for the nation’s schools.