Does “America first” mean civil protections come last?

Does “America first” mean civil protections come last?

About 60 years ago, the 101 Airborne Division of the United States Army entered Little Rock Arkansas about the same time that President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the National Guard throughout the state. The reason for this massive display of force was to protect the well-being of nine black students who were intent on attending the all-white Central High School in that city.

It all came about because of a Supreme Court decision handed down three years earlier that was destined to change the make-up of schools throughout the country. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, the justices affirmed the necessity for classroom integration by unanimously declaring, “… separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” That case was quickly followed by a second that ordered desegregation of schools “with all deliberate speed.”

We had entered a new era, which has persisted into the present day, where the rights of students have been protected by federal administration of justice and, by extension, the authority of the Presidency. Virtually every major law or policy change in education since that time has hearkened back to the principle of equal access and the duty of education agencies to ensure just that.

Overtime the U.S. Department of Education became increasingly vigilant about those protections until the guardianship reached a zenith under President Obama. Eventually, even some of the most liberal educators decried policy guidance that seemed almost obsessive in nature, overlooking the need for certain local variances.

But as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.  …” Now we have an executive branch with no substantive interest in the educational progress of minorities–including students with disabilities–or in protecting their rights. The most worrisome example was the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General – who, as Senator, during the debate on its reauthorization decried the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as “a complex system of federal regulations and laws that have created lawsuit after lawsuit … accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America.”

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has not shown the quite same level of hostility toward inclusion. But her nonchalance toward equal opportunity was abundantly evident in statements in recent hearings before the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services.

When asked about any possible situation where she would advise against withholding federal funds due to discriminatory practices, DeVos was unable to come up with an example, falling back on the usual tiresome bromides about parental choice and local control. After her display of baleful indifference to the function of education in a democratic society during confirmation hearings, the secretary’s disregard for equality of opportunity was hardly a surprise. Even so, one Congresswoman, in an unintended imitation of Captain Renault remarked, “I am shocked that you cannot come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students.”

Just in case there is a possibility that her comments could be interpreted as something other than indifference, the secretary later stated, with respect to due process protections under the IDEA, “Each state deals with this issue in their own manner.”

The comment directly contradicts the traditional role of the Department of Education as a protector of students’ rights, as well as the core of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that states, “No state shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Her testimony falls perfectly in line with the priorities–or lack thereof–of her boss, President Donald J. Trump, as reflected in his proposed budget, “A New Foundation for American Greatness.” As if the cuts to programs like Literacy Grants, Indian Education, Special Olympics, and Gifted Education were not enough, the proposal takes dead aim at the legal recourses available to students, parents, and educators that may be applied to preserve services left in place.

According to the actual budget request, since 1980, the number of complaints filed with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights has risen from 3,497 complaints to 16,720 in 2016. During that period the trajectory has, without any exception, gone up each and every single year. In spite of this trend, the spending plan for next year is to reduce full time equivalent staff by 46 positions.

This reduction will mean there will be fewer personnel available to investigate and resolve allegations of civil violations from parents, teachers, and students. The number of cases staff members will be expected to handle per year will be 42–up from 26 just three years ago in 2015.

The same document for the Education Department says candidly, “In FY 2018, OCR staff must handle its increased complaint workload while maintaining existing operations. At the reduced FTE level, the number of days to complete investigations may continue to increase, and OCR may have difficulty meeting the performance target levels. …” Then it goes on to warn ominously, “To address steady increases in the number of complaints received and decreased staffing levels, OCR must make difficult choices, including cutting back on initiating proactive investigations.”

When it comes to governmental planning, nothing is as forthcoming as a budget. The allocation of resources is, to use an old gambling term, an obvious “tell,” which clearly gives away a person’s or agency’s preferences. Almost as telling (pun intended), is congressional testimony, wherein a spokesperson has taken an oath to keep to the truth under possible penalty of perjury.

Talk about transparency! It is pretty easy to see where this administration is headed as far as protective guarantees and pupil rights are concerned. It will be up to those of us in the field to protect them.

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