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Arne Duncan Set to Pledge Renewed Focus on Civil Rights

Written by guest blogger Mary Ann Zehr

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plans to promise in a speech today to reinvigorate enforcement of civil rights laws in U.S. schools by issuing guidance and implementing new compliance reviews.

"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 wrote in a draft of his speech, which was circulated to members of the press.

Duncan said that compliance reviews will aim to make sure students have equal access to educational opportunities, including a college-preparatory curriculum, advanced courses, and STEM courses. In addition, the speech says that the Education Department will review whether school districts are implementing discipline policies fairly, "without regard to skin color." (The Associated Press, The Washington Post and the New York Times published stories today on Duncan's plans. The blog Why Boys Fail also picked up on the issue.)

Duncan plans to deliver his speech late afternoon today at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to mark the 45th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," when several hundred activists faced state troopers on the bridge to advocate for their civil rights. The state troopers beat the protesters with billy clubs and used tear gas to disperse them.

I have heard some murmurs lately that the Obama administration intended to provide more guidance to schools on how to protect students' civil rights. Russlynn Ali, the Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights, told me recently in an interview that this spring, the department would issue civil rights guidance to apply to several different areas of education.

When reporting recently on what civil rights law has to say about the process of identifying English-language learners in schools, I learned that federal education officials had visited Arizona recently to discuss civil rights issues with state education officials there. The office for civil rights is investigating a complaint contending that changes in Arizona's home-language survey violate students' civil rights because they lead to underidentification of ELLs.

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