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.


  1. I am sorry, but this has to be said: this represents exactly the kind of federal meddling in education that has caused so much damage. The statement “For example, minority students experience disproportionate rates of discipline” removes all accountability for a students own behavior from the student and places it, miraculously, on teachers and administrators. The practical application of this statement is that teachers will have less ability to discipline disruptive students, harming education for all.

    A government policy that removes discipline from the judgement of teachers by making that discipline subject to external review is a government policy that directly leads to a poor learning environment and poor learning outcomes. A poor learning outcome that somehow teachers get blamed for.

    The problem with public education is lack of student discipline, caused by a lack of student accountability. Learning takes work, and the most consistant message coming from political leadership is that students are not responsible for doing the work, teachers are.

    A school can no longer flunk a student (a statement of practical fact, not opinion), so there is no academic reason (besides internal motivation) for a student to do any classroom work. They will pass regardless. Now you are telling students that they will not be held accountable for their behavior. What kind of behavior do you think this will allow?

    As a society, we are what we allow. Without accountability there is no responsibility. We are allowing an entitlement mentality in our children by telling them they are not responsible for their own education or classroom behavior. Think about what this has meant for our society. I believe this has a direct correlation to the amount of services people want from their government while at the same time basically refusing to pay for those services. Entitlement mentality, adult version.

  2. I am encouraged by the commitment to root out inequities that are deeply rooted in many of our school systems. According to your office’s report, “New data from the Office for Civil Rights’ transformed Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) reveal large op- portunity gaps for children of color. For example, in racially diverse districts, less than a third of high schools serving the most Hispanic and African-American students offer calculus courses; only 40 percent offer Physics; and only two-thirds offer Algebra II. And English learners as well as Hispanic students are significantly under-represented among students taking the SAT or ACT tests.” This also reflects the need for more intervention in middle schools and sooner! Students must have a foundation that helps to build upon more rigorous coursework. Excitement and rewards must also be generated to stimulate continued interest both by students and teachers. Teachers and parents must be in tuned with their student’s best learning styles and communicate with each other before setbacks are too great to turn around. If civil rights violations are found, we need to have clear corrective measures that just don’t include withholding various funds that end up making the students pay for the misguidance of their trusted leaders, yet again. Our Youth’s voices are indeed important and so are their Parents! As an educationally engaged parent of four, a national PTA Social Media Ambassador and a White House Champion of Change, I see how we must be involved to increase our awareness of what is or isn’t happening at our schools or districts and how those events could impact our students positively or negatively! Thank you for all that you do.

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