U.S. Department of Education: Promoting Educational Excellence for all Americans

Annual Report to Congress Fiscal Year 1998

Guaranteeing Equal Access to High-Standards Education

The greatest social legacy of the twentieth century is the movement toward equal rights for all Americans. Within this civil rights challenge, a paramount issue has always been one of educational access: how can we, as a nation, achieve equal access to high-quality education for all people, no matter what their race, color, national origin, sex, disability or age?

Earlier in the century, civil rights focused on one issue, which was race. The scholar John Hope Franklin said that ”the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the color line. By any standard of measurement or evaluation the problem has not been solved in the twentieth century, and thus becomes a part of the legacy and burden of the next century.”

No American child deserves to get a second-class education---President William J. Clinton

However, through federal and state action, the work of education, community and religious groups, and the singular effort of those strong individuals who would not give up the struggle for equality, tremendous strides have been made in the last half of this century. The actions of a wide range of people helped thousands of young people to reach their potential. The progress is not limited to the issues of race and color that Franklin described. As we move toward the next millenium, we are equally concerned about the civil rights based on a person's national origin, sex, disability or age.

The civil rights issues in education appeared clear-cut at one time in the recent past: some children were served by well-maintained school buildings with state-of-the-art science labs, while others were assigned to dilapidated schoolhouses that served up decades-old secondhand textbooks. The pipeline to a first-rate education was wide open for many children but virtually closed to others. Although many of these gross inequities have been eradicated, other disparities remain - some easily visible; many more, less so. These more complex issues - such as how schools should give all children equal access to the most challenging coursework possible - are those that the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) currently is working to address.

The civil rights issues relevant to American students and their classrooms are dynamic and ever-changing, and so those of us with federal responsibility for correcting education inequities still have work to do. Who, at the beginning of the struggle for civil rights, would have foreseen that by the end of the century the majority of student and parent civil rights complaints would focus on student disabilities? Who would have anticipated that large numbers of racial minority students would be placed inappropriately in special education classes or denied fair access to gifted and talented programs? Or that there would be the need for federal guidance to be issued on sexual harassment in the classroom? Or that there would be a great number of children - born in more than 150 foreign countries - entering American schools as English-language learners? These are some of the current issues with which the OCR grapples every day, and they are the topics that require a specialized federal work force: statisticians, linguists and psychometricians as well as investigators and attorneys.

As we move into the twenty-first century, our national concern remains centered on quality of education: how well are our students performing? All our students ultimately must be equipped to fulfill the new technological needs of the nation's manufacturing and service industries, as well as to fulfill their own potential in those and other areas of endeavor. After all, our country's standing rests on issues too crucial and too extensive to be served by only a small proportion of the population. In order to maintain our national place in the competitive global marketplace, every American must have equal access to the highest-quality education possible.

The most important thing we can do to strengthen our country for the twenty-first century  is to give our people the best education system in the world.--President William J. Clinton

The OCR will play a critical role in helping the nation reach its competitive goal by guaranteeing equal access to high-standards in education. All students must be prepared to meet the new challenges of the next century. There should be no discriminatory barriers that stand in their way; the pipeline to high-quality schooling must be wide enough for everyone's passage. The OCR is dedicated to breaking down any civil rights obstructions that block or narrow the path to national educational excellence. At the same time, the agency will work with school and college officials, community groups, and students and parents, to build and reinforce those systems and methods that support full access to high-standards education. The OCR's work will assist every student - regardless of race, sex or disability - to achieve the best work possible in the nation's schools and colleges.

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