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Our children, our best

4/21/2017, 7 a.m.

We are encouraged by news this week that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is launching an investigation into the disciplinary policies of Richmond Public Schools.

Advocacy groups sought the federal probe after reviewing stinging data showing that African-American students and students with disabilities are unfairly and disproportionately suspended from school compared with their white counterparts.

Last month, Rep. A. Donald McEachin asked the federal department to investigate not only Richmond, but all of the public school systems within the 4th Congressional District that he represents.

If his letter prompted or accelerated the Office for Civil Rights’ decision to undertake the investigation, we are appreciative. The problems have been festering far too long without earnest and sustained efforts to address them. The futures of too many children have been put in jeopardy by the bias within the school system. For many youngsters, unequal discipline and punishment signal the start of the school-to-prison pipeline, with students winding up in the juvenile, and later adult, prison systems.

In May 2016, the Office for Civil Rights announced that it had received a record 10,392 complaints in 2015 from people and organizations across the nation. In response, it launched 3,000-plus investigations that resulted in more than 1,000 key resolutions reached with institutions.

A report hasn’t been released yet about the number of complaints the Office for Civil Rights received in 2016, but the one filed by the Richmond Branch NAACP, the Virginia ACLU and the Legal Aid Justice Center on behalf of two African-American students would be among them.

While we cheer the probe, we have some misgivings, chiefly that the Office for Civil Rights is now under U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a Trump administration pick with no experience or clear understanding of the public school system and its problems. Our fear is that she will use the data from the Richmond probe and others merely as a show-and-tell to advance her belief and desire for school choice. She may point to the myriad of deep problems within the nation’s public schools to push her initiative to give parents taxpayer-funded vouchers to move children to private schools.

Or, she may make the investigation meaningless and without adequate remedies for those impacted now and in the future.

Last week, Secretary DeVos appointed Candice Jackson to lead the Office for Civil Rights. Ms. Jackson, a Stanford University graduate with a law degree from Pepperdine University School of Law, is viewed as a troubling choice for the job because of her lack of experience in civil rights enforcement and her writings expressed hostility to civil rights and the value of diverse student bodies. According to an article on Ms. Jackson in “Diverse: Issues in Higher Education,” she once claimed she was discriminated against for being white.

“I am concerned that it reflects a belief that may stifle efforts to further the implementation of policies and practices that will try to remedy the racial inequality that exists, and does not show an understanding of the ways in which the nation’s history of racial discrimination have resulted in a society in which opportunity is not equally available,” Dr. Erica Frankenberg, co-director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Pennsylvania State University, stated in the article.