Education Department, Congress Making ‘Retreat’ On Civil Rights

Education Department, Congress Making ‘Retreat’ On Civil Rights
By Charles Dervarics

The nation’s elected leaders, Republican and Democrat alike, are continuing a “retreat from their obligation” to provide adequate funding for civil rights enforcement, the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights says in a new report that also singles out lack of progress at the U.S. Department of Education.
The study, which examines enforcement efforts government-wide, cites particular difficulties at the Education Department, which has had to deal with lower staffing levels — but more civil rights complaints — during the past six years. Full-time equivalent staff at its Office for Civil Rights has declined at least 10 percent since 1994. However, the number of complaints has increased significantly, part of a doubling in the number of complaints filed in the past decade.
“While annual complaints received by OCR have more than doubled over the past decade, staffing levels have fallen,” says Dr. Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She notes that a 1995 report from the commission highlighted similar problems in federal agencies.
“However, not much has changed,” she says. “Limited funding results in fewer compliance reviews, abbreviated investigations, less policy development and less defense of civil rights laws in court.”
The Education Department trends have occurred as funding for the Office of Civil Rights has increased slightly. Since 1994, real spending on the office has increased by about 12 percent, yet “these increases have not been sufficient to offset the increasing workload coupled with decreasing [staff] levels.”
The report cites problems at other federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Housing and Urban Development. “The president and the Congress have continued to retreat from their obligation to ensure that adequate resources are provided for civil rights enforcement,” says the draft report, Funding Federal Civil Rights Enforcement: 2000 and Beyond.
For the Office of Civil Rights, spending gains have been at best uneven  since the mid-1990s, according to report data. Funding decreased from $56.9 million in 1995 to $51.5 million in 1997, before recovering in the later part of the decade.
Staffing levels have declined significantly, particularly from 1994 through 1998. The civil rights office had 821 staff members in 1994 and hit a low of 681 three years later before increasing slightly in the past three years.
Coupled with this trend is a steady increase in civil rights complaints filed with the Education Department. During the 1980s, the Office of Civil Rights averaged about 2,500 complaints annually. During the past six years, however, this average has increased to about 5,000.
As a result of these trends, the Office of Civil Rights is more likely to use mediation — rather than investigation — to resolve complaints, the report says. The designation of such mediation teams is a “means to resolve
complaints more quickly,” the commission  says.
Staffing also is a problem at other federal agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has had no gain in staff from 1994 to 2000, the study says. Still, the number of complaints filed annually has increased by about 67 percent since the 1980s.The
Justice Department’s civil rights division, which monitors discrimination in employment and
education, has realized funding increases since 1994, but at levels below those requested by the president. Staffing levels also have increased only slightly during this period.
For more information about the report, visit the Commission on Civil Rights <http://www.usccr.gov>.



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