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.
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.