The Educational Opportunities Project (“EOP”) strives to guarantee that all students receive equal educational opportunities in public schools and institutions of higher learning. Working with private law firms and community leaders, the EOP has been successful in promoting diverse and integrated learning environments; enforcing the rights of students with disabilities and English Language Learners; challenging discriminatory school discipline policies, student assignment practices; as well as school funding inequities. Currently, the EOP is leading efforts to defend race conscious college admissions policies, and represents a diverse set of underrepresented minority students at Harvard College and the University of North Carolina. The EOP also recently secured a victory in one of the most important higher education desegregation cases to be brought in decades — a case that will restore equity for Maryland’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
COVID-19 has wreaked unprecedented havoc on families, schools and school districts across the nation. Above all, it has magnified racial and ethnic inequities not just in schools, but also across communities and states. While some schools are re-opening this fall with hybrid and/or remote learning, the states still have duties to deliver a quality education to every child in a safe, equitable, and meaningful manner. The challenges for underserved communities of color are only expected to grow as the end of the crisis remains elusive and states grapple with decreasing budgets.
The Lawyers’ Committee opposes the rule because it would deprive the most marginalized children who attend traditional public schools—including low-income Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners of the critical resources they need during the precarious COVID-19 outbreak, and exacerbate the worst effects of the pandemic for their families.
The Lawyers’ Committee hosted prominent, national civil rights litigators to discuss various considerations state and district leaders and local stakeholders should be accounting for in making short-term and long-term educational decisions and how federal and state civil rights laws may be a springboard for communities to act upon in the courts should policymakers and education leaders fail underserved students of color and their schools.
The Lawyers’ Committee co-signed this letter with partners from Higher Ed, Not Debt — a coalition of labor, veteran, senior, student, civil rights, and consumer groups dedicated to tackling student loan debt in America — which implores policymakers to focus on equity and provide relief to student loan borrowers, especially the most vulnerable borrowers, to protect them from falling into delinquency, default, or further economic distress.
In 2014, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (“SFFA”), spearheaded by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, filed a lawsuit against Harvard claiming that its admissions policy – which considers race alongside a multitude of other factors – unlawfully discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Since 2015, the Lawyers’ Committee has represented a multi-racial, multi-ethnic group of Harvard students who are defending a university’s right to consider race to promote diversity and inclusion. The Lawyers’ Committee represents the Students with co-counsel from Asian Americans Advancing Justice Center (AAJC), Boston’s Lawyers’ For Civil Rights, and Arnold & Porter.
In 2014, Students for Fair Admissions, filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina claiming that UNC’s admissions process unfairly uses race to give significant preference to underrepresented minority applicants to the detriment of white and Asian-American applicants, while ignoring race-neutral alternatives for achieving a diverse student body. In June 2015, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the North Carolina Justice Center and pro bono counsel, Relman, Dane, & Colfax PLLC, filed a petition to intervene on behalf of a diverse group of students of color who attend or attended UNC-Chapel Hill to defend the limited, but meaningful inclusion of race—as one factor among many factors—to increase diversity and afford opportunities to all qualified students at UNC-Chapel Hill.
On May 16, 2019, on the eve of the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board, Edward Blum resurrected his failed challenge against the University of Texas at Austin’s (UT) modest, race-conscious policy by filing a lawsuit in Travis County state court. The lawsuit targets UT’s holistic, race-conscious admissions program that considers race and ethnicity as “a factor of a factor of a factor” in its comprehensive review to promote greater diversity within, and across, racial groups on campus. In December 2019, the Lawyers’ Committee and pro bono counsel, Hunton Andrews Kurth, LLP, and Bernabei & Kabat, PLLC, filed a petition to intervene on behalf of students to defend the limited, but meaningful inclusion of race—as one factor amongst many factors—to increase diversity and afford opportunities to all qualified students at one of the state’s flagship universities.
In 2006, a coalition of graduates from Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore claimed that Maryland underfunded and undermined the academic programs at those schools. By letting other state colleges duplicate programs that once attracted a diverse student body to the historically black colleges and universities, the state impeded enrollment at the schools. In 2009, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and co-counsel Kirkland & Ellis LLP joined the team to represent the Coalition and individual students and faculty from these historically black colleges and universities.
Policy & Advocacy
The Lawyers’ Committee and a coalition of education and civil rights advocates called on 30 major universities to immediately end their consideration of SAT/ACT scores for student admissions and to commit to an equity-based admissions approach in 2020 and beyond. The SAT and ACT pose significant barriers to equal educational opportunity while providing no compelling value in admissions. The letter cites the SAT/ACTs’ well-established flaws and built-in biases, including research showing that test scores do not meaningfully predict a student’s success in college and are more closely correlated with race, wealth and parental education.
A coalition of national organizations led by the Lawyers’ Committee urged the state of California to create equal opportunity in its institutions of higher education and its workforce by repealing California’s Proposition 209. The coalition sent a letter to the California Assembly Committee on Public Employment and Retirement and key state legislators in support of ACA 5, which will create equal opportunities for all Californians and fight discrimination and bias against women and people of color.
In response to concerns raised by partners regarding the potential discriminatory treatment of Black students and Black students with disabilities in Delaware, the Lawyers’ Committee conducted a preliminary review of state and school-level discipline data and sent a letter to the Delaware Department of Education outlining several troubling areas revealed in our initial observations.
In re Renewal Application of Team Academy Charter School, et al. (N.J. Supreme Court, No. 083014) (“In re Team Academy”) – May 2020
The Lawyers’ Committee and twenty-six constitutional and educational law scholars filed an amicus brief urging the New Jersey Supreme Court to issue a ruling that will require the Commissioner of Education to affirmatively and meaningfully determine whether charter school expansion in Newark will have a segregative effect or impede the public school district’s ability to provide a thorough and efficient education to all of its students.
In February 2016, the Commissioner approved the enrollment expansion requests of seven Newark charter schools. These schools were already racially segregated and enrolled very few English Language Learners and students with disabilities, in stark contrast to the Newark Public School’s (NPS) demographic profile. Thus, nearly doubling the enrollment capacity of these charters would likely perpetuate and increase school segregation on the basis of race, national origin, language, and disability across Newark schools.
Before the Commissioner approved the requests, however, the Education Law Center (ELC) filed an objection and presented evidence demonstrating this likelihood as well as the impact of the loss of funding from the charter expansion on the school district’s ability to provide a thorough and efficient education to its students.
Following the Commissioner’s approval, on behalf of a historically marginalized group of students known as the Abbott children, the ELC filed an appeal (In Re Team Academy) arguing that the Commissioner violated the constitutional and statutory obligations to Newark’s students by approving the expansions without meaningfully considering this evidence. Following an appellate ruling that upheld the expansion in March 2019, the New Jersey Supreme Court granted certiorari citing significant errors of statutory and constitutional law.
In the amicus brief, the Lawyers’ Committee and scholars cite strong judicial precedent requiring state officials to prevent both intentional and de facto segregation. The brief presents recent research and data showing how charter schools, both nationally and in New Jersey, may be furthering segregation and how this pattern obstructs all children and communities from reaping the tremendous academic and social benefits of school integration. The brief also suggests that in high-need districts like NPS, charter school growth deserves greater scrutiny because of the significant loss of resources these expansions impose on schools that educate greater concentrations of underserved students. Lastly, the scholars and the Lawyers’ Committee ask the New Jersey Supreme Court to consider requiring the commissioner to evaluate several factors to determine whether charter schools may be furthering segregation, including site-location, inter-district demographics, recruitment efforts, staff demographics and certifications, and parental and student supports.
The Lawyers’ Committee, joined by more than a dozen other national organizations, filed an amicus brief in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York respectfully urging the Court to enjoin a new rule announced by the U.S. Department of Education that will make college campuses less safe and put sexual assault survivors at further risk by weakening Title IX protections.
Title IX of the Education Amendment Act of 1972 is the landmark federal civil rights law meant to ensure that students can benefit from educational opportunities free from discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment. Unfortunately, such discrimination is rampant—for example, more than one out of every four college women has experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact. Thus, Title IX is crucial to fostering a safe and supportive school experience.
Yet, in May, Secretary DeVos issued a final rule –Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Sex in Education Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance – that will usher in a new, restrictive era of Title IX regulations that tilts heavily in favor of alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment, discourages reporting, limits jurisdiction over off-campus incidents, and undermines the intent and purpose of Title IX.
The new rule, which is scheduled to take effect on August 14th will have a particularly chilling effect on many underserved students (students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students) who, because of bias, prejudice, discrimination, and racism, already underreport sexual harassment.
As events transpiring across the nation over the last several weeks have magnified, there is a lack of faith and trust in law enforcement born from systemic negative stereotypes, bias, prejudice, discrimination, and racism, particularly for the Black community. Thus, Title IX is a critical avenue for redress for underserved students as law enforcement is not an option for many.
List of amici joining the brief: The American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity, American Association of University Women, American Federation of Teachers AFL-CIO, the American Humanist Association, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the Education Law Center-PA, GLSEN, Japanese Americans Citizens League, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity, the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, the National Center for Parent Leadership, Advocacy and Community Empowerment, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and the Clearinghouse on Women’s Issues
The law firm of Greines, Martin, Stein and Richland LLP is pro bono counsel on the brief.
Programs & Initiatives
The Parental Readiness and Empowerment Program (PREP) seeks to improve K-12 student performance, retention, and access to equal educational opportunities. We serve low-income and minority children in targeted communities by increasing parental engagement and ensuring that parents become successful advocates for their children. By combining the energies of parents, schools, civil rights groups, and the private sector, PREP works to create meaningful access to a quality education for all children. PREP provides parents with information about education rights through public workshops and its innovative online e-clinic. Volunteer lawyers and advocates offer free parents legal advice and online resources give parents and community members guides on how to advocate for improved outcomes.
First Generation Civil Rights Fellowship Program (FirstGEN) is a summer program for undergraduate students who intend to pursue careers in the social justice field and who are the first in their immediate families to attend college. Our mission is to identify and support first generation college students as they emerge into tomorrow’s social justice leaders. Fellows gain hands-on experience working on civil rights matters as full-time interns, while also participating in advocacy training and professional development. Current partners include Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), and the National Immigration Law Center.
Let Us Learn: Schools for Every Child seeks to protect the constitutional right of all children, regardless of their immigration status, to attend public school in the United States. Confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe, immigrant and refugee children have a right to a K-12 education, and school districts cannot deny this basic right based on a student’s or their parent’s immigration status. Let Us Learn seeks to protect this right through outreach to three important groups – state Attorneys General, school districts, and parents and students.