Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, today released an important policy position statement regarding district-provided access to rigorous courses and other educational resources. In this “Dear Colleague” letter, the Assistant Secretary lays out in considerable detail how disparities in access for students of color, disability or national origin to high quality courses, learning opportunities, quality facilities and other provisions of quality educational opportunity will be treated as evidence of discrimination by the Office of Civil Rights.
OCR will look at three guiding questions:
1. Did the school district treat a student, or group of students, differently with respect to providing access to education resources as compared to another similarly situated student or group of students of a different race, color or national origin (a prima facie case of discrimination)?
2. Can the school district articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory, educational reason for the different treatment? If not, OCR could find that the district has intentionally discriminated on the basis of race. If yes, then
3. Is the allegedly nondiscriminatory reason a pretext for discrimination? If so, OCR would find the district has intentionally discriminated on the basis of race.
OCR will investigate the quality, quantity and availability of educational resources and determine if disparities exist among students receiving these services. School districts will be given an opportunity to explain any differences based upon an educational reason that is legitimate and non-discriminatory. If the district cannot provide such an explanation. OCR may find that the district has intentionally discriminated based on race, national origin or disability.
The letter recognizes that expanding access to and participation in educational opportunities may require additional investments, including staffing, facilities, modifications for language proficiency and for students with disabilities. However, the Assistant Secretary clarifies that limited funding does not “preclude the duty to act under Title VI;” and OCR may look at how categorical federal funding is allocated to expand participation of different populations in advanced educational opportunities.
The letter is complex and should be read in detail. But the position of the U.S. Department of Education is clarified in this position. Disparate levels of participation in and access to the educational resources of a school district by race, nationality, language of origin or disability will be looked at as a potential civil rights violation. Districts would do well to initiate their own examination of how students gain access to educational resouces within the framework outlined in this important policy statement.
Here is a link to the full letter released today:
Patrick Burk, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy