One front on which the fight for racial justice is being waged is in the area of education. We have been led to believe that education is the great equalizer in this country, but the reality is that Black and Brown students have disparate experiences in school. For example, a national study from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, issued in 2020, showed that African American students were more than four times as likely to be suspended from school and lost five times as many days of instruction due to disciplinary push-out. How do we stop this, and where is the accountability? This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Liz King, the Director of Education at the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights about efforts to fight discrimination in our nation’s public schools. She makes the case for doubling the Department of Education’s budget of the Office for Civil Rights, a primary agent in holding school systems accountable for injustices inflicted upon students on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. She revisits the damage done to public education during the DeVos era, and offers some solutions to help protect students against discrimination in schools.
Narrator 0:01 This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
Liz King (LK) 0:14 We need to ensure that there are sufficient funds to meet the variety of children’s needs, including the need to attend safe, welcoming and inclusive schools free from discrimination.
Narrator 0:27 One front on which the fight for racial justice is being waged is in the area of education. We have been led to believe that education is the great equalizer in this country. But the reality is that Black and Brown students have disparate experiences in school. For example, a national study from the Center for civil rights remedies, issued in 2020 showed that African American students were more than four times as likely to be suspended from school and lost five times as many days of instruction due to disciplinary push out. How do we stop this And where’s the accountability? This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Liz King, the Director of Education at the Leadership Council on civil and human rights about efforts to fight discrimination in our nation’s public schools. She makes the case for doubling the Department of Education’s budget of the Office for Civil Rights, a primary agent and holding school systems accountable for injustices inflicted upon students on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. She revisits the damage done to public education during the divorce era, and offer some solutions to help protect students against discrimination in schools.
Alex Wise (AW) I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Liz King. Liz is the Senior Director of the education equity program at the Leadership Conference on civil and human rights. Liz, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
Liz King (LK) 2:13 Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate the opportunity to engage.
Alex Wise (AW) 2:18 So you are not only the Senior Director of the education equity program at the Leadership Conference on civil and human rights, you are a former middle school teacher, what’s the mission of your organization? Liz?
Liz King (LK) 2:31 The mission of the leadership conference is to build an America as good as its ideals. We bring together a diverse constituency is to advocate for civil and human rights policy, and the full opportunity and exercise of civil and human rights for all people in the United States.
AW 2:48 And you want to double the budget for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. What does that mean logistically what is like the current budget? And what would doubling it mean, not only in terms of dollar number, but in terms of just looking at all the complexities of that are occurring right now in Congress with reconciliation, etc. from a political standpoint?
LK 3:13 Sure. So thinking about both the technical aspect of federal funding and then going to the political implications. Last year, the Office for Civil Rights received $131 million. President Biden has requested that that be increased to $144 million, which is important. You know, we appreciate that President Biden has recognized that additional funding for civil rights enforcement is an important part of any agenda that describes itself as supporting racial equity or LGBTQ equity or gender justice. We are asking for $260 million for the Office for Civil Rights, given the context of the COVID-19 public health crisis and its serious detrimental effects on educational equity, given the divorce agenda of discrimination and exclusion we’ve seen for the last four years, and given frankly, the significant challenges too many students were facing, even before the Trump inauguration to accessing an equal educational opportunity. We think that now is the time in the context of a long overdue racial reckoning in the context of a very clear demands from students and their families that we attend to the ways in which they experienced discrimination and marginalization. Now is the time to robustly invest in the critical functions of the Office for Civil Rights in the everyday experience of students and the way in which every student deserves an opportunity to submit a complaint of discrimination when they experienced discrimination in their school and have the Office for Civil Rights ready to respond to provide them support in the context of that complaint, to intervene when there is discrimination and most importantly, the Office for Civil Rights needs the resources to prevent discrimination in the first place to provide technical assistance to schools, school districts, to educators who reach out and ask for advice and guidance about how to provide an education free from discrimination. We need data we need the civil rights data collection, and the data it provides about every public school in the United States, and the educational opportunity being provided to those students. So these critical functions of the Office for Civil Rights play an incredibly important role in educational opportunity for students, which we know is determinative of the future of our country. And now is the time to meaningfully invest and ensure the Office for Civil Rights has the resources that it needs.
AW 5:50 So we saw a lot of really productive work coming from Office for Civil Rights across the country during the Obama administration. Maybe you could explain how that changed the last four years under the Trump administration and what we’re seeing under Biden and maybe what you expect to see from the Biden administration in this area.
LK 6:13 What we saw with Secretary DeVos was an agenda of discrimination and exclusion. We saw President Trump’s constant attacks on the well being the rights and opportunities for so many communities and that manifests itself at the Department of Education in attacks on policy on regulations on guidance and attacks on the very investigation process that families have relied on since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Secretary DeVos came in to the Department of Education committed to an agenda of discrimination and exclusion. The first action she took as Secretary of Education was to rescind guidance that explained the legal obligation schools and districts had to provide transgender youth and education free from discrimination. This was a horrendous act and thankfully had no effect on the law, and thankfully has been repudiated by the Supreme Court. However, it sent a very dangerous message to trans children and their families to any gender non conforming child in our schools that they could not expect to be protected from the Department of Education. And so we’re looking for a change. We’re looking for a real commitment from the Office for Civil Rights, the Department of Education and the President of the United States to ensure our laws are protecting everyone. When Secretary divorces nominee for the assistant secretary for civil rights came in his first action was to rescind guidance that demonstrated the support of the Department of Education for diversity, and explained the ways in which the Supreme Court have has said that k 12 schools and higher education institutions can pursue diversity initiatives including affirmative action. When that guidance about the voluntary use of race was rescinded. Thankfully, Secretary de vos was unable to change the law. Thankfully, President Trump was unable to change the law. However, they sent a message that they thought diversity was harmful, that they thought diversity was bad and that it was wrong in spite of all the evidence of how diversity benefits all of us. And so we need to see a change, we need to see a reinstatement of guidance, we need to see real clarity from the Office for Civil Rights, when the Office for Civil Rights rescinded guidance about the non discriminatory administration of school discipline. This is about how to administer school discipline in a non discriminatory manner. When that guidance was rescinded, Secretary de vos was telling people she was comfortable with children experiencing discrimination in school discipline. Were asking for the resources, the Office for Civil Rights needs to restore back to a time in which civil rights was a priority, but to build on the previous work of the Obama administration, and those who have come before and to meaningfully ensure that every child attends a school free from discrimination.
AW 9:15 So with COVID, how has the pandemic affected discrimination not only under Trump, but in the last two semesters, let’s say under the Biden administration? Have we seen things die down or is it hard to gauge because so many people have been remote.
LK 9:34 We did not have educational equity the day before Trump was inaugurated, we did not have educational equity in January 2019. But the compounding effect of a Trump administration and a global public health pandemic that disproportionately harmed communities of color, really contributed to on equal educational opportunity in a myriad of ways. Whether for children with disabilities who were denied access to an education alongside their non disabled peers. Whether the manifestation of the digital divide meant that some children haven’t had access to instruction for months and months and months, we saw COVID exacerbating effect on pre existing educational inequity. And for children for whom educational quality has the greatest stakes the children with the most to gain or lose and the quality of education. We saw for those children COVID had the most tremendous impact on the way in which their educational opportunity was denied. When I say my life matters, you can say yours does too. But I bet you never have to remind it to knock it over.
AW 11:31 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. And I’m speaking to Liz King. She’s the Senior Director of the education equity program at the Leadership Conference on civil and human rights. So maybe you can speak to how the Black Lives Matter movement has kind of lit a fire under some of these concurrent efforts to level the playing field in education.
LK 11:56 Thankfully, the long overdue national reckoning with racism and white supremacy and anti blackness in our country has led to conversations that have been demanded by students, families and educators for a long, long time. We are seeing now a broader understanding of the harms of racial discrimination in school discipline, we’re seeing the ways in which children show up with intersectional lives and how LGBTQ students of color and children with disabilities who are of color, and other students who have multiple identities on which they may experience marginalization, who have been demanding for years to be heard, have been demanding for support and equal opportunity, we are finally seeing and attention to those problems. And at the same time, we’re seeing a backlash, we’re seeing a resurgence in white nationalism, we’re seeing an effort to use the instruments of government to shut down even the mere conversation of racial equity. And all of these factors combined to underscore for us the urgent importance of the Office for Civil Rights and its funding. This office has played a critical role in educational opportunity for many decades. But the role now is in many ways more important than ever, the need for clarity for schools and districts about how to avoid discrimination, how to support diverse student bodies, the need for families to have access to support and technical assistance, and robust responses to complaints of discrimination, as well as the civil rights data collection, which provides really important information about educational opportunity in every school in the country. The Office for Civil Rights plays such a foundationally important role in one of our most basic American civil rights, which is an equal educational opportunity.
AW 13:51 Liz, maybe you can put into context, what it means for children of color to be put out of school, in the kind of rates that we’ve seen across the country and how that ends up feeding. Other concerns all through society, namely the school-to-prison pipeline.
LK 14:11 In this country, we have a deeply discriminatory system of school discipline that is resulting in the exclusion and criminalization of black children, Native American children, other children of color, children with disabilities, and in many instances, most especially children of color with disabilities. LGBTQ students are finding themselves disproportionately excluded from school as a result of discipline policies and practices. Thankfully, the Office for Civil Rights in the Obama administration finally took meaningful action to make plain and clear that racial discrimination in the context of school discipline was unlawful under our civil rights laws. But we know this is not just an esoteric concept around compliance with a law or data collection. We know this has our real effect in the everyday experience of children, we have all been reminded in the COVID-19 crisis, what the real consequences are when a child misses a day of school or more, we see children being pushed out of school on the basis of school discipline for days and weeks and months at a time, we cannot afford for children to lose even a single hour of instruction, let alone the implications of a racially disproportionate and an unjust ablest system of school discipline. Educators want and deserve support to provide an education free from discrimination and that includes in the context of school discipline. Thankfully, there has been amazing leadership by youth in this country to demand that their schools become safe, welcoming and inclusive places for them to learn, grow and thrive. We have seen in the past the Office for Civil Rights show leadership and demonstrate its responsibility to ensure that our laws are being followed and that children have access to an education free from discrimination. When a child is suspended out of school, it can have significant consequences from them, it for them, it can have academic consequences when they lose instruction, there can be risks to their safety and well being if there is not a safe place for them to be when they’re not in school. And we know definitively from repeated research, what common sense would tell us, which is that suspending or expelling a child puts them on a very dangerous trajectory to a very difficult life circumstance, we have a responsibility to ensure that all schools are safe, welcoming and inclusive for all children. The Office for Civil Rights has a specific responsibility in that, as does every child and parent an educator in this country. We need to make sure the Office for Civil Rights has the resources it needs. So that every child can attend school free from discrimination, including in the context of school discipline.
AW 17:02 Liz, maybe you can speak to some of the solutions that the Office for Civil Rights has identified in terms of mitigating discriminatory practices in schools.
LK 17:14 The Office for Civil Rights provides a myriad of resources and and information about how to prevent and respond to discrimination. Sometimes that’s in the context of guidance and a guidance document will say for example, if you are suspending or expelling children for tardiness, or truancy, and the children you’re suspending or expelling are disproportionately children of color. You are probably administering your school discipline in a discriminatory manner. Because it It raises the question of what is the educational purpose of telling a tardy child or a truant child, that they are not welcome in the school that they must leave the school as a consequence for their failure to show up in the school. So it provides concrete examples about the ways in which policies may be discriminatory if they are having a disproportionate effect and if they are not justified for educational reasons. The department also provides data about what is happening for children in schools, which gives us an opportunity to see where things are working, and opportunity to see where children with disabilities are included in higher level courses alongside their non disabled peers. It gives us an opportunity to see where English learners have access to experienced teachers in their school, as well as gives us an opportunity to to see where things aren’t working to see where children are being pushed out to see where children are being secluded and restrained and corporately punished to see where the police are being called routinely on children. So the data provides an important opportunity to see where things are working and where they aren’t working. That apartment also provides individualized technical assistance. A school or a school district may be confronting a challenge that they haven’t previously dealt with. Maybe they need advice and guidance about how to move through that process. They may find themselves stuck in a local community controversy, and they may see some parents demanding discrimination of other people’s children. And the the Office for Civil Rights can provide guidance and technical assistance to schools and districts about how to proceed in a way that supports equal educational opportunity and non discrimination for all students in those schools.
AW 19:35 Can you explain to people what implicit bias means and how it plays a role in the racial disparities that we see in school based disciplinary actions across the country.
LK 19:50 Implicit bias, those biases those unspoken unanticipated orientations that we may all walk around with orient us to believe some things about individual children based on their race. And in the context of school discipline, we see manifestations of implicit bias. You know, for example, the Yale study that found that teachers were, were observing black children more often than white children, and therefore identifying misbehavior by black children more often than white children, not because black children were misbehaving more often, but because they were being watched. more often. We see implicit bias show up when we hear language like willful defiance used to describe a black girl who stands up and speaks her mind when that same language may not be used to describe a very similar situation in which a white girl stands up and speaks her mind. So implicit bias is the way in which the underlying structures and systems have created in our subconscious presumptions about what’s happening, that is leading to discriminatory outcomes, even when there’s not an explicit distributed or even possibly conscious discriminatory intent. Now, it’s important to keep in mind, we talk a lot about implicit bias and implicit bias as important as a way of understanding a dimension of influencing decision making. But there are also manifestations of explicit bias. We’re seeing, for example, racially discriminatory dress codes, and the policing of black children’s hair, it would be hard to argue that that’s implicit bias when it is so facially obvious that it is meant to restrict and limit the stylistic expression of black people and black communities and black history. We’ve been talking about brown Canyon, just the surface of your mind.
AW 22:50 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Liz King, she’s the Senior Director of the education equity program at the Leadership Conference on civil and human rights. So Liz, talking about the doubling of the Office for Civil Rights, his budget could mean taking away dollars for other kinds of educational funding. Is that true? And does it make sense to do this, if the problem is also to attract and retain quality teachers to do their jobs? Hopefully, this is not a zero sum game.
LK 23:26 We can think of fewer more worthy investments than the meaningful enforcement of our civil rights laws and our non discrimination protections. There can be no high quality education, there can be no equal education, there can be no decent education, that is not also a non discriminatory education.
AW 23:44 But we can see policymakers quibble over this and I can just playing devil’s advocate, I can see them saying, you know, how are we going to solve these problems by giving more money to the lawyers instead of educators? How would you respond to that argument?
LK 24:00 This is not a zero sum game. Those who would seek to create an artificial choice are inventing a fiction. Children need educators and nurses and lawyers, children do not need police in schools. Children do not need surveillance in schools. Children need supportive, welcoming and inclusive environments to ask children and their families to choose among an artificially limited pot about whether they should have one aspect of their need met or another is an artificial choice.
AW 24:33 So with the Black Lives Matter movement, educating adults and children and us all becoming a lot more aware of discriminatory practices. One would imagine that there’s a lot more complaints in school systems that need to be processed and addressed. Can you maybe kind of give us an idea of the number, the sheer number of student complaints how those have increased over the years and If the number of staff has kept pace with that growth.
LK 25:03 Since 1980, the number of complaints the Office for Civil Rights has received has increased fivefold. But the number of staff available to respond to those complaints has been cut in half. Even since 2016, we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of complaints the Office for Civil Rights has received. While we have not seen the number of staff keeping up with the pace of increase in complaints, so thankfully, people have been reaching out to the Office for Civil Rights, seeking to have justice seeking to be heard. And unfortunately, the office is not sufficiently funded to appropriately respond to those complaints of discrimination.
AW 25:43 So we’ve gotten past the Trump administration. And we now have a Biden administration, which is embracing the idea of the Department of Education and the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. And they’re not trying to defund these things. But we still have the legacy of the Trump administration where he put three conservative judges in there. How can policies coming from OCR, offset some of these right leaning rulings that are unquestionably going to come down the pipeline.
LK 26:16 Thankfully, in spite of his best efforts, President Trump was unable to repeal our civil rights laws, these laws are still on the books, and they deserve to be fully enforced. Additionally, the bastok decision coming from the Supreme Court, which presented thankfully common sense, that sex discrimination prohibitions also include prohibitions on discrimination based on sexual orientation, and gender identity was a good decision coming from the Supreme Court, we now need the Biden administration to fully implement that. And so we’re calling on the Office for Civil Rights to have the resources that needs to support schools and districts in providing LGBTQ youth and education free from discrimination. So we certainly have a lot of work to do. It is going to be years before we dig ourselves out of the hole created by Trump and Secretary devices agenda of discrimination and exclusion. But there are many concrete steps the Office for Civil Rights can take right now in the context of robust guidance and regulation, meaningful response to complaints of discrimination and publicly available, robust data collection. So we’re going to operate in the constraints that we’re working in, we’re going to remember the importance of the makeup of our courts and encourage folks to engage around who is nominated and confirmed to serve in the judiciary. But there are actions the Office for Civil Rights can and should take right now. And Congress needs to back that up and provide the funding so that OCR can do its job and support our students.
AW 27:52 She’s the Senior Director of the education equity program at the Leadership Conference on civil and human rights. Liz King, Liz, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
LK 28:02 Thank you so much for having me.
Narrator 28:24 You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Stevie Wonder Mavis Staples, and Curtis Mayfield. Check out our website at seachangeradio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week. As we continue making connections for Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.