Researchers Provide Recommendations for a Biden Administration Education Civil Rights Agenda

UMass Amherst’s Kathryn McDermott and colleagues say American schools need a restoration of civil rights protections and a broad approach informed by evidence
Kathryn McDermott
Kathryn McDermott

AMHERST, Mass. – In light of several key civil rights rollbacks that occurred in the last four years, President-Elect Joe Biden’s administration will face a long list of needed actions to address racial injustice and systemic racism impacting the country’s youth, according to a new report authored by leading education researchers, including Kathryn McDermott, professor of education and public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

In a policy memo released by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), “An Agenda for Restoring Civil Rights in K-12 Federal Education Policy,” McDermott and her co-authors offer six concrete suggestions for steps that the new administration can take to move forward in this crucial area.

First, they recommend that the new administration restore key Obama-era civil rights provisions related to voluntary school integration as an initial step, while offering more substantive changes and additional guidance.

Next, they propose that voluntary incentives should be provided to create racially diverse and equitable schools, and school choice policies should be aligned with civil rights goals as part of a larger racial justice in education agenda. Magnet and charter schools must work in concert with traditional public systems to meet diversity goals, they say.

Third, they call on the federal government to return to the Obama Administration’s practice of examining districtwide statistics and practices when individuals file discrimination complaints.

Fourth, the authors suggest that the administration provide more resources for enforcement around civil rights violations, including support passage of the Equity and Inclusion Enforcement Act, which restores the private right of action for civil lawsuits claiming disparate impact under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This, they write, would be a legislative fix to the 2001 Supreme Court decision in Alexander v. Sandoval.

Fifth, the researchers call for necessary resources to be provided for underfunded schools. They say that the Biden campaign promised to triple the appropriations for Title I schools, and at a time when local and state governments are facing substantially lowered revenue, this funding should shift toward approaches that provide support for students, including social workers, extracurricular activities, school psychologists and guidance counselors.

Lastly, the authors propose a federal title for health. They write that states and districts need the federal government to support equitable, safe, quality schooling, during COVID-19 and in its eventual aftermath, and that a federal title will ensure stable funding for school nurses, mental health and guidance counselors and other benefits necessary for public schools to survive and flourish.

Should the Biden administration fail to enact the team’s recommendations and allow the current policies to continue, McDermott worries that, “At a time when parents’ interest in diverse schools is growing, the federal government will not be able to support local efforts to diversify public schools.”

“Despite clear evidence that students of color experience harsher school discipline and less access to challenging classes than White students, federal investigations of discrimination will not be able to examine racial disparities in how schools treat students and advocates will lose access to up-to-date statistics on civil rights in U.S. schools,” she says.

Joining McDermott in drafting the report for the NEPC were Janelle Scott of the University of California Berkeley, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley of Virginia Commonwealth University, Elizabeth DeBray of the University of Georgia and Erica Frankenberg of Pennsylvania State University.

The NEPC, a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions.

The complete report, “An Agenda for Restoring Civil Rights in K-12 Federal Education Policy,” is available online at