Justice not served

7/14/2017, 10:39 a.m.
After decades of struggles and sacrifices, civil rights legislation enacted in the 1960s won federal promises to ensure that discrimination ...

Charlene Crowell

After decades of struggles and sacrifices, civil rights legislation enacted in the 1960s won federal promises to ensure that discrimination is illegal and would not be tolerated. Unfettered access to housing, voting rights, fair credit, public accommodations and more was marked and celebrated as hard-fought victories for black Americans and other people of color. In later years, additional protections were added as amendments to safeguard the rights of the elderly, disabled and the LGBTQ community.

Today, a growing number of interests are questioning whether the Trump Administration intends to uphold these laws. Specifically, a series of federal agencies with offices dedicated to civil rights are at risk. Through budget cuts and staff reductions, these agencies will either outright deny or severely limit the ability to challenge discrimination.

Case in point: The Department of Education scaling back civil rights enforcement. Proposed department budget cuts will result in the loss of the equivalent of 46 full-time positions. For remaining staff, caseload levels will rise.

Laura Dunn, executive director of SurvJustice, a D.C.-based nonprofit that supports legal justice, recently told Inside Higher Ed, “They know that they can’t complete these investigations with such a lean budget and inadequate staffing.”

On June 8, Candice Jackson, acting assistant secretary for the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, issued a memo directing staff in all 12 regional offices to immediately begin new practices. Per Ms. Jackson, the Education Department goal is to swiftly address compliance issues, reach reasonable resolution agreements and encourage voluntary settlements wherever possible. Investigation staff was advised to clear case backlogs and resolve complaints in a “reasonable time frame.”

On June 16, the nonpartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights weighed in on the proposed cuts and issued a lengthy statement detailing a new, two-year comprehensive assessment of federal civil rights enforcement that will, in part, examine whether current budget and staffing levels allow the office to adequately perform its duties.

Other agencies that also will be reviewed by the Commission include the Environmental Protection Agency, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor and the Legal Services Corp.

More criticism arrived on June 27 when 34 U.S. senators representing 22 states sent their own detailed letter of concern.

“You claim to support civil rights and oppose discrimination, but your actions belie your assurances,” the senators wrote Ms. DeVos. “Closing cases quickly at the expense of the quality of the investigation is not in the long-term interests of the complainants and impedes students, teachers and families in receiving just resolutions.

“Rather than abandon a systematic approach, we strongly urge you to support increased funding for OCR’s budget to allow the office to hire additional personnel to swiftly resolve complaints.”

Research by the Center for Responsible Lending found that students of color often are targeted by high-cost private career and training institutes that advertise high incomes for jobs. However, the outcomes promised and the experiences of these students do not match. Only 27 percent of all students in four-year programs in for-profit schools graduate within six years.

Students who do not graduate almost always wind up with deep student debt and low-paying jobs. When their loan repayments become too costly to maintain, loan defaults result that mar their credit profiles.

“If the Education Department was serious about addressing civil rights enforcement,” noted Robin Howarth, a CRL senior researcher, “they would be continuing the Obama administration’s emphasis on adequate staffing of this complex and time-consuming function. Instead, they opt for gutting the standards of investigation in favor of quick resolution of cases.”

Ms. Howarth is right. Closing complaint cases quickly is not the same thing as justice.

The writer is communications deputy director for the Center for Responsible Lending.