Celebrating Education’s Place in Civil Rights

Fifty years after the March on Washington, President Barack Obama and dozens of other dignitaries paid tribute on Wednesday to Martin Luther King Jr., and those who participated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it does not bend on its own,” Obama said in an echo of King’s words. “To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”

From the beginning of his term, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has maintained that education is the civil rights issue of our time, and several speakers during the celebration echoed this sentiment, including President Obama who described those who marched five decades ago:

And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes.

President Obama speakingOn the courage to work together:

We can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on earth for every person. With that courage, we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit and prepares them for the world that awaits them. With that courage, we can feed the hungry and house the homeless and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise.

America, I know the road will be long, but I know we can get there. Yes, we will stumble, but I know we’ll get back up. That’s how a movement happens. That’s how history bends. That’s how, when somebody is faint of heart, somebody else brings them along and says, come on, we’re marching.

President Bill Clinton noted that there is still work to be done to realize King’s Dream:

We cannot be disheartened by the forces of resistance to building a modern economy of good jobs and rising incomes or to rebuilding our education system to give our children a common core of knowledge necessary to ensure success or to give Americans of all ages access to affordable college and training programs. And we thank the president for his efforts in those regards.

Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (D-OH), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus:

Dr. King advocated for an America where everyone would be afforded their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; a nation where there would be equal protection under the law; and a country where every person’s right to vote is protected. He dreamed of an America where every child has access to quality schools and an education that prepares them for their future. And he dreamed that we, as a nation, would walk together on the swift path towards justice.

Following his speech, President Obama spoke with Gwen Ifill on PBS NewsHour and said that he would continue to move forward on his economic agenda — including early childhood education — as a way forward in the struggle for equal rights.  “I want to get early childhood education done because we know that’s the single most important thing we can do to increase upward mobility and opportunity for disadvantaged kids,” he said.  “And, if Congress isn’t willing to pass a law, then I’ll start meeting with mayors, and we’ll start meeting with governors, and we’ll start meeting with non-for-profits and philanthropies.”

Earlier in the week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed students and civil rights leaders at the School Without Walls in Washington, D.C., and to students nationwide via live stream. He discussed education as the “civil rights issue of our time” and the progress the country has made toward providing all students an opportunity to succeed through high-quality education.

Read his speech or watch the video.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education

Observing National Day of Silence

Today GLSEN hosts its national Day of Silence-a day where students throughout the country take a vow of silence to call attention to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools. I want to encourage all of us NOT to be silent on an important issue: the need to address and eliminate bullying and harassment in our schools.

No student should ever feel unsafe in school. If students don’t feel safe, they can’t learn. And if left unaddressed, bullying and harassment can rapidly escalate into even more serious abuse.

I want to remind students, parents, and administrators of the power of supportive clubs, like the Gay Straight Alliances or GSAs, to foster safe school environments. The Department of Education has provided guidance to schools on their obligations under federal laws to provide equal access to extracurricular clubs, including GSAs, as well to address bullying and harassment and gender-based violence.

Let’s work together to end bullying and harassment in schools.

Please visit StopBullying.gov and find additional resources from the Department of Education below–including school obligations under federal law:

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Title VI: In Pursuit of Equity in Education

Last Monday, we had the opportunity to spend the morning with an impressive group of high school students from New York and Washington, DC. These students came together to learn more about Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Obama Administration’s commitment to racial equity in education.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 embodies the noblest belief of the Civil Rights movement: that all Americans have an equal right under the law to the educational opportunities necessary to achieve the American Dream. “The only way to achieve equity in society is to achieve equity in the classroom,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2010.  The struggle for opportunity in the classroom and beyond achieved a major victory 48 years ago this month when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, and though we’ve made remarkable progress in providing equal educational opportunities to all of our nation’s children since then, we have not yet realized the full aspirations or spirit of the law.

Secretary Duncan speaks at the Title VI Event

Last week students joined Secretary Duncan and Assistant Secretary Ali to learn more about Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Obama Administration’s commitment to racial equity in education. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

We know from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection that troubling disparities persist in our nation’s elementary, middle and high schools. For example, minority students experience disproportionate rates of discipline; teachers in schools with the highest African American and Latino enrollments often have less teaching experience and receive lower pay; and few of America’s high-minority schools offer advanced science or mathematics courses that will prepare them to compete in a 21st century global economy.

The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education responds whenever it has cause to believe that these disparities are the result of Title VI violations. In fact, over the past three years the Obama Administration has launched more than 55 systemic and proactive investigations in response to Title VI-related complaints of discriminatory discipline, racial harassment, and barriers to education for English learners. The Office for Civil Rights has also issued policy guidance to school districts and colleges that voluntarily choose to promote diversity in their student bodies. All of these have been steps in the right direction. However, for each complaint received by the Department, there are others that are left unreported, hampering our students from being able to reach their fullest potential.

The Obama Administration has been relentless in its efforts to root out and address educational inequities across the country, and also to invest and encourage reform in what have historically been some of the nation’s lowest achieving schools, transforming them into safe and successful environments where all students can thrive.  President Obama’s Race to the Top competition has spurred comprehensive and unprecedented state-level reforms of policies and practices affecting our schools and early learning programs, and this Administration’s School Improvement Grants are helping to turn around the lowest performing schools through critical investments and intervention strategies. In higher education, President Obama is focused on boosting access, affordability and attainment, in part by expanding Pell Grants to open the doors of college to millions of additional students.

These major policy initiatives are at the heart of President Obama’s vision for building a more prosperous and successful nation for everyone, and for creating an American economy built to last. The President shares deeply the vision of those who made Title VI a reality, and he knows that we must provide the resources and spur the reform to make sure that America remains a nation where every child has the opportunity to succeed.

The students who joined our Administration last week are proof that the President’s vision is grounded in the possible.  They are leaders in their classrooms and in their communities.  Their questions were insightful and their desire to be change agents was evident.

During our celebration of Title VI, students shared their own touching personal experiences with civil rights.  Their stories remind us vividly that young people played a significant role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act; it was students who stood up 50 some years ago and said “no more.”  Alongside Secretary Duncan, we shared with students the value of young people continuing to work for equality not only in the education system, but also in the world around them.

Youth involvement played a significant role in the passage of every major civil rights milestone in our nation’s history, and the voices of America’s young people and their families continue to play an essential role in sustaining those noble principles behind America’s civil rights laws.  We’re moved by the stories shared by the students who joined us last week, and by their determination and vision to help build an America where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.

To learn more about the Administration’s commitment to Title VI, check out the Title VI: Enforcement Highlights report released earlier this week in commemoration of the 48th anniversary of Title VI.

Roberto Rodriguez is the Special Assistant to the President for Education at the White House Domestic Policy Council. Russlynn Ali is the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

Shooting Hoops to Celebrate Title IX

Secretary Duncan and his family joined Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, members from the women’s basketball teams of Georgetown, George Washington and Howard universities, current and former WNBA players, and more, at the Interior Department last night to commemorate the passage of Title IX 40 years ago.

Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance, and has resulted in millions of women competing in interscholastic and intercollegiate sports as never before.

Watch the video below and read Secretary Duncan’s remarks on the anniversary of Title IX.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Before the Title IX anniversary, the ED published a new gender-based analysis of its Civil Rights Data Collection. The data snapshot highlights differences in educational opportunities between males and females from pre-K through higher education.

See what people are saying about the Title IX anniversary.

Duncan Enlists Sharpton’s Civil Rights Network in Education Reform

“You are all partners and allies in reforming public education,” Secretary Arne Duncan said last week at the National Action Network’s 14th Annual Convention in Washington. “An excellent education for very child is a moral and civic imperative, as well as an economic one. This issue is even bigger than education—it is an issue of social justice and economic security,” Duncan said.

One takeaway from the conference is that the civil rights community has a long and distinguished history of taking courageous action to drive social change, and it will take collective will to make a difference in boosting the nation’s graduation rates and turning around our low-performing schools. “Without equality in education there will never be equality in society. We have to do what’s right for our children and make education a priority,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network.

Secretary Duncan explained that “we have to have a strategy to build an economy that will last—and education is the centerpiece of it.” Duncan praised groups like the National Action Network for their work with communities, and said that “we need to keep fighting together for strong local, state and national investments.”

Concerning Data on Inequities

During his remarks, Duncan highlighted recently released data from the Civil Rights Data Collection that provides policymakers, educators, parents and communities with critical information that will aid them in identifying inequities and targeting solutions to close the persistent education achievement and opportunity gap in America.

The new data show minority students across America face harsher discipline, have less access to rigorous high school curricula, and are more often taught by lower-paid and less experienced teachers.  Teachers in schools serving mostly minorities get paid an average of $2,250 less per year. Just 29% of schools serving high minority populations offer calculus compared to 55% of high schools serving non-minorities. African American students are three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended and expelled than whites. African American students are 18% of the nation’s student population but 35% of the suspensions and 35% of students to be arrested. This is what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Despite the best efforts of educators to bring greater equity to our schools, too many children, especially low-income and minority students, are still denied the educational opportunities they need to succeed.  Duncan explained the need to change laws and policies that require schools to distribute resources more equitably.  

 Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream speech,” Duncan noted in closing. “I plan to be on the (Washington) Mall with you—marking the moment—and reaffirming our commitment to end discrimination in housing, in jobs, in education, in opportunity and to realize the American dream for everyone no matter their color, race, religion or background,” he said. “There is so much at stake, and together we hold the key to the future.”

Kimberly Watkins-Foote is Director of African American Communications and Outreach

Back-to-School Bus Heads to the Great Lakes

During last week’s #AskArne Twitter Town Hall, Sarah, a third grade teacher, asked if it is possible for Arne to “tour and sponsor real town halls with educators.” This week, ED announced that Secretary Duncan and his senior staff will be holding more than 50 such events next week.

Secretary Duncan stops in New York during last year's back-to-school bus tour.

Starting on Wednesday, September 7, Secretary Duncan and senior ED staff will head to the Great Lakes Region for a Back-to-School Bus Tour. Arne will be making stops in Pittsburgh, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Merrillville, Ind., Milwaukee and Chicago, and senior ED officials will be hosting dozens of events throughout the Midwest. The theme of the tour is “Education and the Economy: Investing in Our Future.”

Arne will be meeting with educators and talking with students, parents, administrators, and community stakeholders. Among the topics that Secretary Duncan and senior staff will discuss include the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, K-12 reform, transforming the teaching profession, civil rights enforcement, efforts to better serve students with disabilities and English Language Learners, Promise Neighborhoods, the Investing in Innovation (i3) fund, STEM education, increasing college access and attainment as well as vocational and adult education.

Click here for additional details on Secretary Duncan’s back-to-school bus tour stops.

You can follow the progress of this year’s Back-to-School tour right here at the ED Blog, by following #EDTour11 on Twitter, and by signing up for email updates from ED and Secretary Duncan.

Ensuring Technology Is Accessible for All Students

Schools across the country are taking steps to improve their learning models to include emerging technologies that our nation’s young people so heavily use.  The U.S. Department of Education recognizes that this initiative will better prepare students for success in college and their careers.  Now, we must ensure that the benefits of technology serve all students.

Last week, the Department and its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) took another step toward the Obama administration’s dual goals of better serving the needs of the millions of Americans with disabilities, and increasing educational opportunities.  In two Dear Colleague Letters, one for Elementary/Secondary and one for Post Secondary, and a Frequently Asked Questions document (pdf), we explained the obligations of educational institutions that provide benefits to students through these technologies, and their responsibility to provide equal opportunity with all types of technology for students with disabilities.

This guidance serves as a follow-up to a letter OCR issued in collaboration with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice around the 20th anniversary of the ADA last summer.  In that guidance, our offices emphasized that not all electronic book readers have the functionality for students who are blind or have low vision. We notified colleges and university presidents of their obligation to provide equal opportunity to use such technology to students with disabilities or make appropriate accommodations or modifications when necessary.  Last week’s guidance stresses what information higher education institutions, as well as elementary and secondary schools, should consider upfront when deciding if technology is the best resource to provide effective instruction.

Under Secretary Duncan’s leadership, we are deeply committed to seeing that OCR enforces the rights of students, as well as the accessibility of all school programs under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Technology changes the landscape of how we interact and learn each day.  Through our collective efforts, we can ensure that all of our students are equipped to leverage it in hope of closing the achievement gap.

Read more from OCR in the original Dear Colleague Letter to higher ed institutions on the use of electronic book readers.

Russlynn Ali is the Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

Strengthening Our Response to Sexual Assault in Schools and on College Campuses

Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and University of New Hampshire Senior Sara Jane Bibeau deliver remarks at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, NH. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

“When it comes to sexual abuse, it is quite simple: no means no,” said Vice President Biden at an event earlier today at the University of New Hampshire.  Secretary Duncan joined the Vice President on the campus of UNH to announce new guidance to help schools, colleges and universities better understand their obligations under federal civil rights laws to prevent and respond to the problem of campus sexual assault.

The Vice President—who as a Senator was the sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994—noted that schools, colleges, universities and community colleges all have a responsibility to be proactive in what amounts to the civil rights of women on campuses.

One of the reasons for this new guidance is that acts of sexual violence are vastly under-reported.  “Every school would like to believe it is immune from sexual violence, but the facts suggest otherwise,” said Secretary Duncan.  Duncan also explained that sexual violence is not only a problem at colleges and universities, but more and more of our nation’s young students are suffering from acts of sexual violence early.  Recent data shows that nearly 4,000 reported incidents of sexual battery and over 800 reported rapes and attempted rapes are occurring in our nation’s public high schools. By the time girls graduate from high school, more than one in ten will have been physically forced to have sexual intercourse in or out of school.

The Vice President noted that the Obama administration is the first administration to state that sexual violence is not only a crime, but can also be a violation of a woman’s civil rights.  You can read more about today’s event, a pdf fact sheet from ED’s Office for Civil Rights, and read ED’s dear colleague letter to higher ed, K-12 and other Title IX stakeholders.

Watch Secretary Duncan and Vice President Biden speak at UNH.