Education Secretary Arne Duncan Says Some Public Schools Discriminate

By Penny Starr | March 9, 2010 | 5:53 PM EST

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan talks with high school student D'Wan Lewis before making a speech stressing civil rights at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. (Jamie Martin/AP Photo)

( – In a speech commemorating the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” civil rights protest in Selma, Ala., Education Secretary Arne Duncan referred to certain failing public schools in America as “dropout factories” and places that “seem to suspend and discipline only young African-American boys.”
“The achievement gap in our country is shameful,” Duncan said on Monday. He said some public schools are discriminating against students because of their race, gender, or disability by limiting their access to advanced and college preparatory classes. “Fifty-six years after Brown v. Board of Education, 45 years after Bloody Sunday, the achievement gap is still a cancer that imperils our national progress.”
“America’s school children cannot wait six years, or eight years, for pervasive educational inequities to fade,” Duncan said
The National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers’ union, issued a statement supporting the Obama administration's push to make sure schools are adhering to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which is overseen by the Education Department.
“NEA applauds the Department of Education’s decision to step up the enforcement of civil rights laws in education to ensure that school districts across the country know their responsibilities to fairness and equal opportunity,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said in a statement.  
The statement said the NEA already is working to reform the nation’s schools, including the federal government’s role.
“In 2008, NEA unveiled its plan to transform all public schools by 2020,” Van Roekel said. “A critical component of that plan included redefining the federal role in education. In particular, NEA stressed the importance of protecting and achieving equal access for students to services and supports they need to be successful.
“The federal government has a vital role to play in advancing the quality of America’s public schools,” Van Roekel said. “As such, we are pleased to see the federal government embracing its role as a supporter of district and state responsibilities by strengthening enforcement of civil rights laws in order to promote access and opportunity.”
In his speech, delivered on the Edmund Pettus Bridge where protestors were beaten by state troopers and where Martin Luther King Jr. marched with civil rights advocates to Montgomery, Ala., two weeks later, Duncan blamed the Bush administration for not doing enough to combat discrimination in the nation’s schools.
“The truth is that, in the last decade, the Office for Civil Rights has not been as vigilant as it should have been in combating gender and racial discrimination and protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities,” Duncan said. “But that is about to change.”
Stephanie Monroe, assistant secretary for civil rights under Duncan’s predecessor, Margaret Spellings, defended the Bush Office for Civil Rights in a March 8 Business Week article.
She said about a dozen civil rights cases were filed during every year of the Bush administration, including some cases involving harsh discipline meted out to minority students. “The Bush administration’s record on civil rights in education stands for itself,” Monroe said.
Duncan said in his Selma speech that the Education Department would issue “guidance letters” to school districts and post-secondary institutions and in the future will announce “a number of “compliance reviews” to insure that students are being treated fairly and have access to all programs and classes.
Requests to the Education Department press office by asking whether Duncan’s remarks, in fact, accused school personnel of discriminatory practices were not answered by deadline.
The office also did not respond to a question about why Duncan and the Obama administration are shutting down the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has given scholarships to thousands of low-income, minority students, allowing them to attend private and parochial schools in the nation’s capitol since its inception in 2004.
President Barack Obama’s daughters attend the private Sidwell Friends School in the District of Columbia, where the annual tuition for elementary school is $29,842 (tuition for the middle and upper schools is $30,842 a year). Duncan’s children attend public schools in Arlington, Va.
“As the President said in his State of the Union, ‘in the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education,’” Duncan said in his Selma speech. “And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential.”
But, as reported earlier by, Duncan said that giving children scholarships would take money away from public schools, even if the $7,500 Opportunity Scholarships are less than half what taxpayers pay for daily student attendance in D.C. public schools, many of which are repeatedly ranked as some of the worst failing schools in the country.
“I appreciate the desire of every family to have the best possible education for their child,” Duncan told in a statement. “I also understand that our role is to support children, parents and educators. That is why this Administration is devoting more resources and supports more ambitious reform of our public school system than any administration in history.”

Duncan said taking a small percentage of children out of the public school system and putting them in private schools through school vouchers is not the answer. “We need to be more ambitious,” he said. “We need to fix all of our schools.”  
In his Selma speech, Duncan said the Obama administration was going to make Martin Luther King’s dream “real.”
“We intend to make that dream of equal educational opportunity that Martin Luther King glimpsed from the mountaintop, real,” Duncan said. “We intend to march on, on toward the dream of a colorblind society.  We cannot wait. And with your help, your commitment, and your courage, we will all cross the bridge that leads to true equality.”