The U.S. Department of Education recently released two reports spotlighting the achievements and challenges of its Office for Civil Rights (OCR). During an event with U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon the Department released two reports touting OCR’s achievements.
Protecting the access of all students to a world class education was one of the highest priorities of the Obama Administration. According to OCR’s 2016 report, the number of complaints received soared to a record 16,720 complaints. In contrast, during the 2009 fiscal year OCR received 6,364 complaints, more than 10,000 fewer complaints than the agency received in 2016. The current figures eclipsed the previous record number of cases received during the 2015 fiscal year: 10,392. In addition to the 2016 report, the Department released a second report touting OCR’s vigorous enforcement activities during the Obama Administration.
OCR’s staffing level remains to be its major challenge moving forward. OCR received a record number of complaints while its staffing level remained near a record-low 563 full-time employees. By contrast, in 1981 OCR received less than 500 complaints with a work force of 1,100 staff members. With a Federal hiring freeze looming on the horizon, it is unlikely OCR will be able to increase its staffing numbers during the current fiscal year. If the agency continues to receive complaints at record numbers, the next administration could cripple its enforcement power simply by not providing OCR with the necessary resources to accomplish its mission.
As we approach the sunset of the Obama Administration and the dawn of the Trump Administration, nobody is certain what OCR will look like moving forward. Will OCR continue its vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws? Will the next administration immediately withdraw some or all of the 34 policy guidance documents issued during the previous administration? Will the administration place any emphasis on the enforcement of civil rights issues? Hopefully, in the coming months we will find clarity regarding the Trump Administration’s approach to these issues and the role of OCR moving forward.