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Understanding Education Discrimination

Did you know that there are a number of federal laws which specifically prohibit discrimination in the provision of educational opportunities and services? A person or group may be discriminated against, in access or quality of education, based upon their age, race, color, national origin, disability, or sex. The following is an overview of some of the laws which seek to eradicate this form of discrimination.

Enforcement Responsibilities

  • The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education is charged with enforcing all of the federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the bases of age, race, color, national origin, disability and sex. The self-stated mission of the OCR is "ensuring equal access to education and promoting educational excellence throughout the nation."

  • OCR receives complaints directly from students, their parents, and faculty. In addition, OCR performs compliance reviews to assure that all students are receiving fair treatment. For example, OCR may conduct a compliance review by tracking the demographics of students in special education courses in order to determine whether an inappropriate number of English-as-a-second language students are on the attendance rolls for those courses.

  • In an effort to dissuade future acts of discrimination, OCR also sponsors or holds a wide variety of workshops, refresher courses, and other educational seminars on education discrimination.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

  • This portion of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in educational institutions that receive federal financial grants or assistance.

  • Complaints received by OCR dealing with this law may involve ability grouping, disciplinary practices invoked by schools, the prevalence or acceptance of inter-district student transfers, school desegregation, housing concerns, and racial harassment, among many others.

  • According to the Department of Education, the introduction of Title VI is beginning to appear to be having a positive effect.

    • In 1976, the dropout rate of African American students ages sixteen to twenty-four was 20.5 percent. In 1990, that number had declined to 13.0 percent.

    • Another statistic reveals that in 1982, minorities comprised only 11 percent of the students in advanced placement courses. In 1997, that number had risen to 29 percent.

    • In a final statistic, a study revealed that since 1990, the number of Latino students enrolled in higher education facilities has increased by 47 percent. African American student enrollment increased by 20 percent. The number of American Indian enrollment increased by 30 percent.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972

  • This federal law prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal financial grants or assistance. Violations of this law may include such issues as treatment of pregnant students, equal opportunity to participate in athletic programs, and sexual harassment, among others.

  • As with Title VI, the introduction of Title IX is appearing to have a positive effect on eradicating sex discrimination in education:

    • According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of females participating in high school sports programs increased from 294,000 students in 1971 to over 2.4 million in the 1996-97 school year.

    • The Census Bureau has reported that by 1997, 29 percent of young women had earned at least a bachelor's degree. In 1970, by comparison, only 13 percent of young women had reached that educational goal.

    • According to this same source, when Title IX was enacted in 1972, 9 percent of the professional degrees awarded in medicine were given to women. In 1996, 41 percent of the medical degree recipients were women.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of a person's disability in the provision of educational services and opportunities in educational institutions that receive federal financial grants or assistance.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

  • This is a far-reaching federal law that prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including public school districts, public colleges and universities, public vocational schools, and public libraries whether or not they receive federal financial grants or assistance.

  • Complaints handled by OCR involving either or both Section 504 and Title II may include, but are not limited to, issues such as the appropriate screening for and provision of special education services, the accessibility of school facilities, the availability of auxiliary aids for impaired students and the inter-school discipline of students with disabilities.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

  • IDEA seeks to provide free public education to every child with special education needs. IDEA requires an individualized educational plan to be developed for each child who has a disability. Developing the plan is a joint effort between the government, educators, and the parents of the disabled child. IDEA was originally enacted in 1975 and underwent substantial amendments and changes in 1997.

  • IDEA is the only federal anti-discrimination in education law covered in this primer which is not enforced by OCR. Instead, IDEA is enforced by OCR's counterpart, the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education.

  • It appears as though the passage of Section 504 and Title II for students with disabilities, and the passage of IDEA for students needing special education, have had a positive impact on the access of disabled individuals to educational opportunities:

    • In a report to Congress in 1997 on the implementation and success of IDEA, it was noted that in 1984, only one-fourth of students with disabilities were served in regular classrooms for at least 80 percent of the school day. In the 1994-95, in comparison, 45 percent of students with disabilities were being served in regular education classes.

    • Since the enactment of IDEA in 1975, 90 percent fewer developmentally disabled children are living in institutions.

    • According to a study performed by the American Council on Education Research in 1995, more than 800,000 students with disabilities are engaged in either full-time or part-time higher educational pursuits.

Age Discrimination Act of 1975

  • This federal act prohibits discrimination on the basis of a person's age in educational institutions that receive federal financial grants or assistance.

  • Unlike some other age discrimination laws, such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) which only protects workers over the age of forty, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 protects students of all age groups from discrimination based upon their age. If there is a valid reason for requiring students to be of a particular age, an educational institution may be absolved from complying with the Act.

  • Finally, as with the other federal laws prohibiting education discrimination, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 has also had a positive effect in creating a more diversified student population.

    • In 1996, there were more than three and one-half times as many college students age thirty-five and over as there were in 1972 according to the Census Bureau. In 1972, there were 783,000 students enrolled in higher education in this age category. In 1996, that number rose to 2,778,000.

    • According to the OCR, older students tend to make better grades than younger students. In 1995-96, 30 percent of undergraduate students age forty and above received mostly A's in their courses. Only about 7 percent of students age twenty-three and below could claim similar success.

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