Commentary by Kevin L. Martin, Project 21
WASHINGTON - American voters elected a black president. Three women now serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Gay marriage is legal in several states.
Despite evidence of widespread tolerance in America, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights received almost 7,000 complaints over the past fiscal year — an increase of 11 percent.
What happened to that harmonious, post-racial America that liberals promised?
Russlynn Ali, the current head of the OCR, suggests the increase is because people now have more faith that the government will listen to their complaints. Gerald A. Reynolds, a director of the OCR during the Bush Administration and the current chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, says it's more likely because of a change in OCR culture from simple law enforcement to enacting social change.
Reynolds is right. Ali told Education Week that "disparate impact is woven through all civil rights enforcement of this administration."
Disparate impact is when a bureaucrat simply looks at numbers to render a judgment on delicate issues such as race. It's usually not until after a disparity is noted, and reputations are sullied, that necessary questions are asked about why those numbers are the way they are.
Ali essentially proves Reynolds' concern. She told the Associated Press many school administrators committing discrimination did so unknowingly, saying, "The problem is, in far too many cases, they actually don't understand what their responsibilities are."
So what are these administrators' civil rights violations? For the Christina School District in Delaware, it's a zero tolerance behavior policy in which 71 percent of black boys were suspended as opposed to 22 percent of their white counterparts. In Boston, not enough students with limited English skills were getting the special treatment federal law dictates.
They sound shocking. John Jackson of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, an OCR official during the Clinton Administration, said, "These are all cases that have to be resolved and systemic policy solutions put in place…"
But isn't a zero tolerance behavior policy "systemic"? In Delaware, the zealousness of the Christina zero tolerance policy was recognized and legislation already passed at the state level to give administrators more discretion regarding minor altercations. This should lower the "disparity." It seems, however, that administrators are still presumed guilty in the eyes of the OCR.
Then there are the language programs. In Los Angeles, which, unlike Boston, is compliant with federal language requirements, the AP reports most of the challenged students are actually native-born Americans. And 30 percent of them remain in these special classes for the majority of their scholastic careers.
That almost a third of students born here enter remedial English language courses and never come out is a disparity that apparently doesn't trigger alarm bells under the federal one-size-fits-all policy.
I am concerned that 71 percent of the black boys in the Christina School District were suspended, but it appears the problem was addressed locally before Washington bureaucrats intervened. Why start an investigation now, before the adjusted policy can be assessed?
My mother was a public school teacher. I'd hate to think that a woman such as her who took so much pride in her work might now be forced to second-guess her instincts because of a fear of crossing Uncle Sam's quantitative line. I'd hate to think she might not do the right thing because it would cause someone in Washington to think she might be a racist.
This, however, is likely to be the new normal for those who don't understand their new school "responsibilities."
It's possible these 7,000 complaints are just the tip of the iceberg in the years to come. Liberals are running out of excuses. More money hasn't helped our kids. No Child Left Behind standards haven't helped our kids. Is "disparity" the new education boogey-man?
If that's what liberals are going to cling to, don't expect our schools to be turning out better students anytime soon.
Kevin L. Martin is a member of the national advisory council of the Project 21 black leadership network.
Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Black Radio Network, Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.