Wednesday, May 04, 2011

OCR Trades School District Complaints for Statewide Review

The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has received more than a hundred complaints against school districts in Washington state since fall, all alleging violations of Title IX in the schools' athletics departments. Recently, however, the federal agency has closed its pending complaints against Washington schools, choosing instead to investigate the state office in charge of gender equity in education. Notably, Washington state law requires schools to annually audit their athletic programs for compliance with state and federal gender equity laws. The large number of OCR complaints filed against those schools certainly suggests some weaknesses in the scope and enforcement of that state requirement.

As far as I can tell, OCR's decision to close school district complaints in favor of state agency review is a highly unusual move. I'm not quite sure what to make of it. On the one hand, it looks like OCR has recognized some systemic problems in the state, and the possibility that those problems might be attributable to the state agency's failure to hold those schools accountable. Moreover, by turning its attention to the state education agency, OCR sends a message to every state that they have a role to play in ensuring that gender equity problems do not keep mounting up around the state.

On the other hand, school districts and state education agencies have concurrent responsibilities to comply with Title IX, so OCR's decision to let the schools off the hook for now smacks of abdication of enforcement duty. For this maneuver to sit well with me, I'd like to see OCR take the enforcement resources that it presumably saves by consolidating hundreds of individual school district investigations into a single investigation of the state education agency, and use those resources to open up compliance reviews of other state education agencies around the country. Such a move would produce better support of Title IX at the state level and make it so that OCR is not the only cop on the block, so to speak. If this is about getting more bang for the proverbial buck, how about going for a really big bang?

If you happen to be interested in OCR's own description of its decision to replace school district investigations with a compliance review of the state education agency, here is an excerpt from its letter closing some of those complaints:
OCR is currently conducting a compliance review of the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (WA OSPI) under Title IX (OCR Case No. 10115004). The review will examine the methods and procedures that WA OSPI uses to evaluate the reports on interscholastic athletics programs that each school district in the state is required to submit to OSPI annually. In particular, it will investigate how WA OSPI ensures the accuracy of the reports on interscholastic athletic programs submitted by the districts.

It will further examine how WA OSPI addresses reports indicating that districts are not in compliance with Title IX in order to determine whether WA OSPI is aiding or perpetuating discrimination by providing significant assistance to districts that do not comply with Title IX.

OCR has received more than 125 complaints since November of 2010 alleging that school districts throughout the state of Washington are violating Title IX by failing to provide female students equal opportunities to participate in interscholastic athletics compared with opportunities that are provided to male students. Considering the number and scope of similar allegations, OCR has determined that a compliance review of the state education agency is appropriate.

Under OCR's procedures, OCR may close a complaint that raises allegations that are being addressed in a compliance review. Since OCR is conducting a statewide compliance review that will address the allegation raised in your complaints against the above districts, OCR is closing the complaints against these districts as of the date of this letter.