Standing Watch

Russlynn Ali is the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of EducationRusslynn Ali is the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education

WASHINGTON —  Russlynn Ali wasn’t quite sure what to expect when President Obama appointed her civil rights chief for the Department of Education. After all, the once high-profile agency had more recently been in a low-profile mode when the president took office in 2009. Ali was a passionate activist in California helping champion educational equity for minorities.

Today, as Ali approaches her third year working as assistant secretary for civil rights, she says she’s found Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan supportive of her efforts to recharge the agenda of the Office of Civil Rights.

“There’s never been a conversation about go slower,” says Ali, who brought the same energy and passion to the national education stage that characterized her career in California as an advocate for equity in educational opportunities for children. “By every indication, we’re doing what the law says do,” she adds, carefully acknowledging some of her compliance initiatives may have ruffled the feathers of some local and state officials whose schools have drawn her office’s attention for one reason or another.

A District of Columbia native, Ali grew up in nearby Prince George’s County, Md. Ali attended Spelman College, earned her undergraduate degree from American University and earned a law degree from Northwestern University. She is far from being a household name across the higher education landscape. Still, her fingerprints seem all over the place.

Since taking office, Ali and her recharged staff have been working through a backlog of several thousand complaints that run the gamut of possible civil rights violations by educational institutions that receive federal funds. They range from complaints of alleged discrimination against those with disabilities to complaints about the alleged lack of educational opportunities for underprepared K-12 students to Title IX complaints challenging how colleges are handling women’s sports programs.

Also, Ali has initiated compliance reviews focusing on possible inequities in educational opportunities for students at specific schools and in a variety of school districts, including Los Angeles and Boston. She has stepped up efforts, with some success, to resolve outstanding compliance complaints.

Most recently, Ali’s office has initiated an investigation of Penn State University “to determine whether the university has failed to comply” with federal law. The Clery Act, as the law is known, requires schools participating in federal financial aid programs to keep and make public campus crime statistics and campus security information. The law was named after Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old freshman at Lehigh University who was raped and murdered in 1986 in her dormitory room.

“There’s been a pretty dramatic change in their willingness to take on cases and in resolving them,” says Iris Chavez, deputy director for public policy at the Washington, D.C.-based League of United Latin American Citizens. “It has been heartening to see,” says Chavez, adding that “everywhere she (Ali) goes, she encourages them (the aggrieved citizens she encounters) to file a complaint. It’s a very different attitude. We’ve had a number of people take her up on that.”

Going Full Tilt

Indeed, Ali’s work has been almost nonstop since she joined Obama’s team.

A few days after Ali’s appointment in March 2009, her agency announced it would examine the “academic opportunities and access of English language learners” in the Los Angeles Unified School District to determine whether the area’s racial minorities, especially its booming Hispanic school-age population, were receiving “equal educational opportunities.” The case has since been resolved. Furthermore, a resolution of a similar inquiry involving Boston’s public school system is expected soon.

Regarding compliance with Title IX of the federal higher education law requiring colleges to level the playing field of opportunities for women athletes with that of men, the agency’s aggressive enforcement posture is credited for helping speed resolution of a 2010 complaint by women equestrian students at Delaware State University. The students alleged discrimination against women when the school decided to scrap the relatively new and costly program. The program got a reprieve and the school, in November, announced new women’s golf and lacrosse programs aimed at leveling gender inequities in school-sponsored athletic programs.

Reflecting on the agency’s actions, Ali says the Office for Civil Rights initiated 34 compliance reviews in 2010 and 37 in 2011. She expects to initiate several dozen inquiries in 2012.

Not all is fast forward, however. Ali’s office is still wrestling with a nearly 15-year-old Title IX case involving the University of Southern California. Ali also has written reminders to officials in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Florida and Ohio concerning their obligations to comply with anti-discrimination commitments they made to settle higher education desegregation cases involving public HBCUs in their states. In those letters, she urges officials not to use the nation’s persistent economic downturn as a vehicle to escape their financial compliance under the settlements.

Ali acknowledges that her stepped-up enforcement activities have rubbed some people the wrong way.

“We rightfully get pushed, get questioned,” the assistant secretary says. That includes hearing from various members of Congress on behalf of a school or schools in their respective legislative districts or state. “I don’t see that as backlash but part of the process. “Some of that stings and hurts because it’s flat out wrong,” Ali says, referring to some who question whether she’s running out of bounds.

Some supporters, she points out, also have questioned whether she’s moderated her passions too much since coming back to Washington.

“When you talk about style, part of the key is you’re the canary in the mine, not the thorn in the side,” she says. “Stridency for a particular group (her trademark in California) has to be considered in the context of what’s good for children as a whole,” says Ali. She adds that advocacy “on the outside” for a particular group is far different from what she is required to do now. “There’s been a lot of disappointment,” because of that, she says.

Ali, who holds the same job once occupied by Justice Clarence Thomas, says she eventually hopes to move the agency from “compliance-driven gotcha, to one that is about innovation and support.” The deals she has struck with the Los Angeles Unified School District and the one expected in Boston reflect that kind of approach, she says.

“We’ve seen a dramatic transformation of services for students learning English, a real focus on African-Americans and changes in disciplinary practices,” says Ali. The agency has received thousands of complaints about discrimination in disciplinary practices at schools across the country. “There’s an incredible story about hope and change and fundamental fairness,” she says.

Ali hastens to temper her optimism with a familiar caution that “the proof will be in the outcomes of the resolutions. The real test will be in monitoring these resolutions, that promises made will be promises kept. Otherwise, it’s just promises on paper,” she says.

For Ali, a first-generation American of Trinidadian descent, the roots of her passion about the significance of education can be found in her experiences with her mother, she says.

As her mother pursued her school studies, eventually earning a Ph.D., Ali studied alongside her mother and was always reminded that a good education could unlock doors of opportunity.

“If we can get education right, maybe we can fix the rest of the ‘isms,’” Ali says.