Group seeks civil rights polls in schools pledging to tackle systemic racism
A national advocacy group that opposes anti-racism efforts in schools is trying to use a federal civil rights law against districts that have said they have a problem with systemic racism, which many educators see as the first step in fighting against racism, or take measures to combat racism. reduce racial tension.
The Parents Defending Education group has filed federal civil rights complaints against several districts across the country, arguing that when districts announce the presence of systemic racism in their schools, they admit a violation of federal law and should face penalties that may include loss federal money.
Still, critics say the tactic is “malicious” and could discourage school districts from taking that important first step toward tackling structural racism by saying it exists in their schools.
The group’s latest such complaint, filed May 10 with the US Department of Education’s civil rights office, involves an investigation into the Columbus, Ohio school district, which publicly said last month that “there is systemic racism in our education system ”.
In March, Parents Defending Education filed similar complaints with the ministry against the Webster Groves School District in Webster, Mo .; Orange County schools, in Hillsborough, North Carolina; and Hopkins Public Schools, in Hopkins, Minn.
Such complaints are a bad faith exercise designed to have a chilling effect on schools and districts that want to tackle inequality and help students of color, said Liz King, director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil. Rights.
King said it was telling that in the Columbus case, Parents Defending Education did not cite information from the district on actual racial disparities, such as the fact that black students account for 54% of enrollments in Columbus schools, but only 27% of enrollments in gifted and talented programs, and 72% of extracurricular suspensions.
“They want to end even the simple discussion of racial inequity because they know that discussion is a prerequisite for real solutions,” King said. “The problem is not to recognize these inequalities. The problem is not to remedy these inequalities. They are asking the federal government to step in and end a conversation.
Nicole Neily, president of Parents Defending Education, dismissed the claim that the group was simply using complaints to create a chilling effect on districts.
“If a school has claimed to be racist, it deserves an investigation – period,” she said in an email response. “Discrimination against students is a serious problem, and allegations about it should not be broadcast in a performative manner.”
In practice, meanwhile, OCR investigations “require considerable human and fiscal resources” in terms of how districts should respond, said Sasha Pudelski, director of advocacy for AASA, the Association of Directors. school.
“OCR investigations are incredibly long and cumbersome for districts, sometimes taking years to resolve depending on the scope of compliance and the data and policies that need to be collected, reviewed and reported,” Pudelski wrote in an email. .
In response to a request for comment, Jacqueline D. Bryant, a spokesperson for the District of Columbus, said in a May 11 email that “the district is not aware of this administrative complaint. It would not be appropriate to comment until we have been contacted by the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, regarding this request for an investigation. “
The other three districts did not respond to requests for comment before the Education Week deadline.
The group is pushing its agenda at the national level
Parents Defending Education opposes what he calls “awakened” programs and efforts to divide students and others into “oppressive” and “oppressed” groups. The nonprofit highlights examples of parents and others opposed to these and other initiatives in classrooms and schools.
Group staff members work or have previously worked in organizations such as the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank; the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a K-12 organization focused on responsibility and school choice; and Coalition for TJ, a group that opposed changes to admission policies at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia.
The group also filed a brief in the highly publicized case of student discourse before the Supreme Court of the United States, Mahanoy region school district v. BL. One of the authors of the brief, lawyer William Consovoy, worked for former President Donald Trump on controversial ballot access issues..
In addition to its recent civil rights complaints, Parents Defending Education has filed Freedom of Information Act requests against several districts for information on things like a district equity council. in the Alamo Heights district of San Antonio, Texas, and a racial equity audit in the South Kingstown district of Wakefield, RI
In its OCR complaint against Orange County schools, the group says the district’s decision to create “affinity spaces” to build community and reduce racial prejudice amounts to “explicit racial segregation.”
Focus on school district rhetoric
The complaint against the Columbus District ties back to a school board statement last month that district leaders were working to end the “systemic racism that has existed for 175 years in the Columbus City schools education system” by “developing a culturally sensitive staff ”and“ Fair policy ”.
The statement, which refers to the conviction of former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, goes on to list the ways in which systemic racism persists in the school district, but also in the city, the police department. local and local. criminal justice system. “Your school board is launching it and is ready to take action to address systemic racism in Columbus,” the board also states.
Parents Defending Education said in its complaint calling for a federal investigation that the Columbus School Board’s approach is clearly problematic.
“As the Department of Education is no doubt aware, such an admission of ‘racism’ by a district superintendent raises concerns that schools in Columbus City have received federal funds in violation of the title. VI of the Civil Rights Act 1964, ”wrote the group’s chairman. , referring to the historic federal law which prohibits discrimination based on race, color and national origin in federally supported programs.
Federal enforcement mechanism is complex
The education department declined to comment on civil rights complaints against the four districts by parents defending education.
The department’s civil rights office has a comprehensive case handling manual on how it handles investigations of various types of alleged discrimination. Complaints to the office often deal with issues such as racial disparities in discipline and services for students with disabilities.
But the speed at which the civil rights office resolves or settles complaints has become a point of contention under the Trump administration.
Three of the parent civil rights complaints defending education also cite a Trump administration investigation into Princeton University last year after similar statements about systemic racism by the university president as a precedent.
the correspondence on Princeton Department of Education highlighted by Parents Defending Education, however, indicated that this investigation would be conducted by its post-secondary education office and the attorney general’s office, and not by its civil rights office.
In response to questions emailed from Education Week, Neily acknowledged that the Princeton investigation had not been undertaken by the Civil Rights office and that education advocates would revise this statement “in future complaints ”.
King, of the Leaders’ Conference on Civil Rights, stressed that the group’s misrepresentation of the Princeton investigation undermines its complaints. “The Ministry of Education knows how to enforce Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act] , and it’s through the civil rights office, ”King said.
A heated political debate is in the background
It’s fair to wonder how seriously this office under the Biden administration would take these complaints, given its stance on systemic racism in an educational context, as well as recent events.
Last month, the Education Department proposed new priorities for a small set of history and civic education grants referencing Project 1619, a set of New York Times stories placing slavery and racism at the center of American history and politics, as well as work on anti-racism by the scholar and activist Ibram X Kendi.
The proposal did not require the grants to be used to teach the 1619 Project or Kendi’s work – the federal government does not have the right to create or dictate a curriculum in schools – but did indicate that, according to his proposal, the grants would prioritize education that takes into account discrimination and prejudice in US politics. It would also support education focused on diverse student perspectives.
The proposal has drawn intense opposition from conservative policymakers and activists, although some left-wing figures in the center have also questioned key principles of anti-racism. Senator Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Republican Leader in the Senate, called the proposed priorities for US history and civics grants “nonsense.”
Outside of Washington, at least eight states so far this year have taken steps to restrict the way educators approach concepts like racism and sexism. in the classroom. These bills, for example, say that it would be prohibited to teach that anyone should experience “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or her gender, or that the United States or certain states are inherently racist or sexist
The policymakers behind such bills say they are fighting a “toxic” ideology that pits students against each other on the basis of their race and tries to load the collective guilt on the shoulders of the students. And a handful of states this year have also considered banning educators from using Project 1619. in schools.
Critics of such movements allege that anti-racist education efforts can help students understand the impact of racism and sexism not only on the interactions of individuals with one another, but on American society and culture and on the roots of inequalities that persist to this day.