The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is facing new pressure to investigate and step up its enforcement of racial disparities in K-12 and higher education in the wake of a recent Supreme Court ruling that banned the use of race in college and university admissions.
The top Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce urged Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon on Tuesday to use the full force of her office to tackle everything from exclusionary discipline to de facto segregation in poor-performing schools, from the undereducation of students of color based on lack of access to advanced courses and high-qualified teachers to the use of standardized testing in college admissions and the preferential treatment in admissions granted to athletes and children of alumni, donors and faculty and staff.
“Any honest assessment of the pervasiveness of race in that system would recognize that people of color consistently face unequal discriminatory treatment on the basis of their race, treatment that has been historically counterbalanced by affirmative actions, but now can only be eliminated with robust enforcement of Title VI,” Rep. Bobby Scott, Virginia Democrat and long-time education and civil rights advocate, wrote Tuesday in a letter obtained by U.S. News.
“The Office for Civil Rights has the power to conduct investigations without an intervening complaint, and I encourage you to use it strenuously to root out vestiges of discrimination in our education system,” he wrote.
The Supreme Court overturned decades of precedent in June when it issued a pair of decisions that struck down the use of race in college admissions. The decisions all but guarantee a drop in enrollment of Black and Hispanic students in the country’s most elite colleges and universities at a time when those schools are trying to increase diversity.
The watershed moment comes as the country grapples with entrenched divisions over the historic impact of systemic racism and institutions of higher education struggle to expand access to students of color in the wake of a once-in-a-generation pandemic that decimated their enrollment.
Among the myriad responses to the ruling, President Joe Biden proposed new admission standards for colleges and universities to adopt – a process that takes into account “the adversity.” The Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation last week into whether Harvard University provides preferential treatment in the admissions process to applicants with ties to wealthy donors and alumni – so called “legacy applicants” – that overwhelmingly benefits white students. And the Education Department hosted a higher education equity summit, which highlighted the various ways colleges are attempting to ensure diversity on campus with policies that, for example, may take into account things like poverty, employment and crime rates associated with an applicant’s ZIP code.
Lhamon also publicly announced that the civil rights office plans to release guidance this month outlining the federal civil rights obligations that schools, colleges and universities must still uphold in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. But many, including Scott, consider guidance an inadequate response, especially, he said, given that some Republicans are adopting a broad interpretation of the court’s ruling and attempting to apply it to circumstances beyond the scope of the decision.
The Missouri attorney general, for example, recently warned municipalities and public colleges and universities that the Supreme Court’s decision means that decisions and policies about scholarships, academic programs and employment that result in racial diversity may violate Title VI. And 13 state attorneys general issued a letter to the CEOs of the Fortune 100 companies, putting them on notice that diversity, equity and inclusion efforts may amount to “over and pervasive racial discrimination” that violates both state and federal law.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act ensures that no person is excluded from participating in, denied the benefits of or is discriminated against based on race, color or national origin in any program that receives federal financial assistance, as nearly every K-12 school, college and university does.
“It is clear that the intent of Title VI is being perverted by extreme Republicans in an attempt to roll back progress towards racial equality,” Scott wrote, noting that the country has made only “incremental” progress since it was first enacted in 1964.
“Title VI has the potential to bring equity to our schools, and in turn make our society more equitable,” he wrote. “But the long campaign to weaken Title VI was successful. It has now taken a new darker posture, as we witness attempts to use the law to perpetuate racial inequity.”