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Duncan: Enforcement laws coming

SELMA — The faces have changed, but the issue is still the same: Public education needs to be equivalent for all children.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stood in the middle of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the first leg of the Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965 for voting rights, and announced the Obama administration’s strengthened commitment to ensure fair opportunities and practices for all students as about 500 students, principals and elected officials listened.

“Over the next year, our civil rights office will be undertaking that work in communities and schools across this country,” Duncan said. “We are going to reinvigorate civil rights enforcement in our country.”

The Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education will send guidance letters on issues of fairness and equality to schools and colleges, work to have equal access to educational opportunities such as college-preparatory curricula or advanced courses for all students and to ensure discipline in schools is not based on a child’s skin color.

The laws are on the books already, but need enforcing. Duncan pointed to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlines regulations for nondiscrimination in federally assisted programs.

A couple of issues pointed out by Duncan: 12 percent of high schools produce half the dropouts in the United States. Three fourths of African-American and Latino come from those schools; and African-american students without disabilities are more than three times as likely to be expelled as their white peers.

“It doesn’t matter what your race is, wealth, special need or zip code, every child is entitled to a quality education,” Duncan said. “That’s why the fight for education is about so much more than education. It is truly a battle for social justice.”

The Education Department will take a look at 38 school systems this year to see how they measure up. The agency does not have a list of those schools; they will be notified later this year.

The measuring stick against which these schools will stand is a broad one, taking in a variety of civil rights issues from discipline in the classroom, availability of college-prep classes for minorities to health issues, such as allergies to peanuts.

The point is, Duncan said, not so much the schools, but the well-being of the students.

“To close the achievement gap, we must get very serious about closing the opportunity gap,” he said.