The Obama administration promised on Monday expanded enforcement of civil rights in education, saying that gender and racial discrimination still hinders far too many students from grade school through college.
In an initiative tied to the 45th anniversary of the civil-rights marches in Selma, Ala., Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited that city and announced plans to open "compliance review" investigations at more than 30 school districts nationwide and six colleges.
The department will also take a more aggressive approach in seeking out civil-rights enforcement matters and warning institutions about problem areas, Mr. Duncan said. The department's Office for Civil Rights "has not been as vigilant as it should have been" over the past decade in confronting discrimination involving race, gender, and physical disability, he said.
The actual effect of the administration's promised initiative was not fully clear, as its promised number of compliance-review investigations was similar to the numbers in the final years of the Bush administration, and department officials gave limited details of how their approach would differ.
Mr. Duncan said he would not identify the school districts or colleges facing the intensive investigations before they are notified. The assistant secretary for civil rights, Russlynn H. Ali, said only that the investigations on the college level would involve topics that include athletics, sexual violence, and people with disabilities.
But Ms. Ali said the department would begin using "disparate-impact analysis," a technique in which statistics are studied to discover discriminatory outcomes that may not stem from any obvious discriminatory intent.
"We'll be looking at data and other sources," said Justin Hamilton, an Education Department spokesman, "as well as proactively working with school and district officials, parents, advocacy groups, and community organizations."
Mr. Duncan, speaking with reporters from Selma, where civil-rights marchers were beaten by police officers on March 7, 1965, said discrimination today is seen in figures showing white high-school graduates are several times more likely than blacks or Latinos to be ready for college-level algebra, calculus, or biology.
Protecting access to education is "the civil-rights issue of our generation," the secretary said, bringing to Selma one of his most repeated phrases.
The head of the department's civil-rights branch for the last three years of the Bush administration, Stephanie J. Monroe, said she supported the aggressive pursuit of discrimination cases and disputed any suggestion that the office had been inattentive during her watch.
Her division carried out 42 compliance reviews in 2008 and 23 the year before, department officials said. It initiated only nine in 2006, though Ms. Monroe said the office was overcoming a backlog of 90 cases that year and finished 72 of those.
The civil-rights office also received about 4,000 to 6,000 complaints a year about discriminatory practices in education and well exceeded the requirement that it resolve 80 percent of them within 180 days, she said. "Our primary responsibility as a law-enforcement agency is to address cases that come in the door," she said.
The Value of Statistics
The use of disparate-impact analysis, however, can be tricky, said Ms. Monroe, who is now president of the Wrenwood Group, which lobbies on educational issues. Simple statistics such as those showing women now outnumber men on most college campuses might not necessarily reflect discrimination, she said, and could instead be due to matters of personal choice.
"Just looking at numbers" doesn't always reveal problems, Ms. Monroe said.
But numbers, said Alma R. Clayton-Pedersen, vice president for education and institutional renewal at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, may be a good place to start investigations.
Ms. Clayton-Pedersen said she doesn't know for sure where the Obama administration's initiative will lead, but she said she's encouraged by the fact that Ms. Ali came to the department from the Education Trust, an advocacy group that has used research to identify and demonstrate gaps in educational opportunities.
"It's something more than the students going on here," Ms. Clayton-Pedersen said, referring to problems identified by researchers such as possible racial variations in areas like admissions and grading, "and the institutions are not meeting the challenge."
The administration's most important concrete promise, Ms. Clayton-Pedersen said, is its plan to send a series of guidance letters to virtually all school districts and colleges in the country warning them of their responsibilities across a range of civil-rights issues, including student assignments, discipline, and access to teachers and other resources.
And rather than waiting for "cases that come in the door," Ms. Clayton-Pedersen said, the Obama administration has made clear that it plans to use data to go find problems. Just like any other law-enforcement agency, she said, the Education Department's civil-rights division should work to "prevent crime and not just respond to it."