Today marks the fifty-seventh anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark law passed at the height of the modern civil rights movement and in the midst of entrenched racial discrimination and massive resistance to desegregation. The law came a century after our country fought a war to end slavery, whose vestiges were then codified by Jim Crow and conserved by the de jure protection of separate but unequal spaces. Put simply, the Civil Rights Act’s passage in 1964 was not an end to the struggle, it was a new beginning.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, and the building that houses the Department of Education is named after him—a reminder that the civil rights movement has deep roots in America’s schoolhouses and campuses.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is especially important within the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department, as it applies to elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and U.S. territories. The law prohibits recipients of Federal financial assistance from discriminating based on race, color, or national origin both in and outside of the classroom.
For almost six decades, OCR has enforced Title VI and its implementing regulations in instances where recipients’ unlawful discrimination has taken the form of different treatment of individuals and disparate impact on groups of people. This work is fully part of broader efforts in OCR and across the Department to ensure equal opportunity for students who experience overlapping forms of discrimination based on race, color, national origin, disability, age, and sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity. As Secretary Cardona says, all means all, and we are laser focused on standing with every single student.
The words—“free from discrimination”—are both a foundation and a minimum of what our nation’s students deserve and should expect from their educational experience. And yet the fight to protect that foundation is as important now as it ever has been. While progress has been made, we know from OCR’s Civil Rights Data Collection that stark racial and ethnic disparities remain in the administration of school discipline, for example, and that far too many schools are racially isolated, inequitably resourced, and do not offer equal access to programs that allow students to succeed.
As President Biden stated in his Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, “advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our Government.” It is a solemn responsibility, and I am proud to be part of a Department that is wholly committed to its execution, in letter and spirit. Here are some highlights from OCR’s ongoing work to advance racial equity:
- COVID-19’s Impacts on Students and Schools. In June, we issued Education in a Pandemic: The Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on America’s Students, which explores how the impacts of COVID-19 are falling disproportionately on students who went into the pandemic with the fewest educational opportunities. Many students who experience the pandemic’s harshest effects are from marginalized and underserved communities, with early research showing disparities based on race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ identity, and other factors.
- Discipline in PreK-12 Schools. We are currently soliciting information from the public on the administration of school discipline to determine what type of guidance to schools is necessary to ensure the nondiscriminatory application of discipline practices—please consider sharing your insights. This request follows our earlier national convening on examining disparities in school discipline hosted by OCR and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, which focused on strategies for addressing disparities in school discipline and promoting positive school climates.
- Harassment of Asian American and Pacific Islander Students. In May, during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we issued a Dear Educator Letter to remind schools of their obligation to address harassment of students because on their race, color, or national origin, including harassment of Asian American and Pacific Islander students. OCR also released a fact sheet, Confronting COVID-19-Related Harassment in Schools, jointly with DOJ, to provide students and families information about the role that ED and DOJ play in protecting students’ civil rights.
- Civil Rights and School Reopening. OCR’s Questions and Answers on Civil Rights and School Reopening in the COVID-19 Environment addresses schools’ responsibilities to respond to harassment based on race, color, and national origin, including during remote instruction, to ensure against discriminatory use of discipline, and the responsibility of school districts to ensure against significant racial disparities in access to particular education resources or patterns of racial inequality across a variety of resources, highlighting OCR’s earlier guidance on resource comparability.
As we take time today to mark the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we also honor the heroes, both known and unknown, who fought for the rights that the law enshrines. And we acknowledge that the fight continues; that the promise of equal opportunity, while closer than it was 57 or 157 years ago, remains unfulfilled. Until it is, OCR stands ready to enforce the law and protect our students from discrimination.