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Office for Civil Rights Posts Agreements From Investigations

The U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights is posting agreements online that are forged between the office and school districts resulting from compliance reviews or investigations of complaints. Russlynn H. Ali, the assistant secretary for the OCR, made a point of telling me about the new method of distribution in a phone interview last Friday.

Until recently the Education Department didn't post the agreements online. To get a copy of a settlement agreement, I've typically had to file a Freedom of Information Act request and wait for weeks to receive the document, as OCR staff methodically blacked out any information that was deemed to be protected by privacy laws. Frankly, it's been much easier to get the agreements from the school districts involved or parties who made an initial complaint than from the Education Department.

OCR will continue to black out information in agreements, of course, but Ali indicated her office is trying to make them more readily accessible. The OCR has posted several agreements finalized under the Obama Administration. Two of them address civil rights in K-12 institutions. An agreement from a joint investigation by the Education Department and the U.S. Department of Justice into services to English-language learners in Boston Public Schools is posted there as well as an agreement springing from an investigation into how Chicago Public Schools provides transportation to students with disabilities.

I commend the Justice Department for issuing a press release back in October about the Boston agreement and sending a copy of it to me on the same day that it was signed, so that I could write an article about it in a timely manner for EdWeek.

The Justice Department has posted settlement agreements involving civil rights for a while.

Ali didn't promise to issue press releases or send me an e-mail message when civil rights agreements are posted online, so I'll need to check periodically. Readers, I invite you to help me keep watch.

The Education Department has been aggressive in opening up compliance reviews in a number of districts that explore such issues as whether all students have access to Advanced Placement courses to whether English-language learners have access to the core curriculum. The agreements are important because they give us a sense for how the Obama Administration is interpreting federal civil rights laws.

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