Within-School Discrimination:

Inadequate Title VI Enforcement by the Office for Civil Rights

HRD-91-85: Published: Jul 22, 1991. Publicly Released: Jul 22, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO assessed the: (1) extent to which U.S. elementary and secondary schools may discriminate against minority students in assignment practices; and (2) adequacy of the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights' (OCR) enforcement activities regarding within-school discrimination.

GAO found that: (1) OCR and numerous education researchers have found evidence of possible within-school discrimination resulting from such practices as block scheduling, ability grouping, and student assignments based on single measures; (2) OCR within-school discrimination compliance review efforts have declined since fiscal year 1983; (3) OCR found violations more frequently during compliance reviews than during complaint investigations; (4) OCR regional offices varied in their investigation and resolution of complaints and lacked written policy guidance for discrimination investigations and regulations concerning acceptable student assignment practices; (5) OCR regional offices delayed or did not complete monitoring of noncompliance cases, and investigators indicated that monitoring was a low priority in regional offices; and (6) OCR personnel indicated that lack of staff expertise and limited training opportunities adversely affected regional offices' investigation, resolution, and monitoring activities. GAO also found that in December 1990 OCR reported its intent to: (1) initiate a centrally coordinated compliance review program as part of a new national enforcement strategy; (2) assign a high priority to within-school discrimination; (3) develop written policy guidance regarding within-school discrimination investigations; (4) improve monitoring activities; and (5) provide more training opportunities.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A memorandum from the Attorney General instructing agencies to fully utilize disparate impact provision in current regulations and the development by OCR of policy guidance on using disparate impact analysis in ability grouping investigations accomplished the purpose of this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To provide federal guidance to state and local education agencies, the Secretary of Education should issue title VI regulations that identify practices schools should use for assigning students to classes on the basis of academic ability or achievement level.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education's Office for Civil Rights provided guidance to its staff and the public, including state and local education agencies, regarding appropriate legal standards governing student class assignment and the investigation of possible within-school discrimination. These measures were taken in response to a number of factors, including the report, indicating that such guidance was needed. In addition to GAO's concern, concerns were expressed by civil rights advocates and the education community. Based on these concerns, Education concluded that it could do more to enhance civil rights compliance in this area by clarifying the standards of compliance.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that regional offices reach consistent determinations in their investigations, the Secretary of Education should direct the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to develop and issue policy guidance that specifies how and when regional offices should use disparate impact analysis in title VI ability-grouping and tracking investigations. This policy guidance should specify the appropriate methods and criteria for determining: (1) if district practices have a segregative effect; (2) if the practices are educationally justified; and (3) when and how to determine the availability of alternative methods of student assignment. In addition, policy guidance of similar specificity should be developed on the appropriate analytic approaches to be used in investigations of each of the other within-school discrimination issues.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education has taken steps to ensure the priority status of its monitoring activities. For example, regional directors' performance agreements include completion of monitoring as a criterion. Also, an automated monitoring tracking system is being implemented in the regions.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should direct the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to ensure that regional offices give monitoring high priority, as specified in the OCR enforcement strategy. The Assistant Secretary should enforce agency policy that requires OCR regional offices to monitor school districts until they verify that approved corrective action plans have been fully implemented and that the districts' actions have corrected the violations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education has coordinated with desegregation assistance centers regarding OCR ability-grouping investigations and the provision of training. Also, agency-sponsored training related to ability-grouping investigations is underway.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should direct the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to: (1) identify the kinds of training and technical assistance related to within-school student assignment issues that could be provided by regional desegregation assistance centers; and (2) enter into agreements, if possible, with the centers to obtain needed services for OCR investigations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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