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New Bush civil rights secy. fails his own test

Jim Ward
Tuesday April 16, 2002

To the editor, 

As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush promised that he would fight to see that "all Americans with disabilities have every chance to pursue the American dream." But President Bush's appointment of Gerald Reynolds last week as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education betrays his prior commitment. 

With Congress in recess, the president exercised a relatively obscure power the chief executive has to make a "recess appointment." Not only does this appointment sidestep the Senate's constitutional role, but it also leaves many Americans wondering whether "compassionate conservatism" - a term Bush has used to describe his philosophy - is heavy on conservatism, but light on compassion. 

The person who oversees OCR will bear a heavy responsibility. This office is responsible for ensuring that nearly 15,000 school districts and more than 3,600 colleges and universities across the nation comply with federal civil rights laws-including access for students with disabilities. 

OCR provides technical assistance to educational institutions to help them comply with federal laws, and it also investigates charges of discrimination. Roughly 60 percent of all discrimination complaints that OCR investigates involve students with disabilities. For this reason, the person who heads OCR must be ready to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and other federal laws that protect more than 6 million American students who have some kind of disability. 

But Reynolds is unlikely to be this kind of advocate. In the 1990s, he criticized the ADA, claiming it would "retard economic development in urban centers across the country." Reynolds also served as legal analyst for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a group that has repeatedly attacked the ADA and supported efforts to weaken this crucial law. 

Recently, a top official with the Center blasted the ADA as "one of the worst-drafted statutes" and urged Congress to "make the act narrower."  

Last year, the Center's president, Linda Chavez, complained that the ADA was "a haven for everyone from scam artists to disgruntled workers." 

These accusations are both hysterical and false. Research shows that employers face only minor costs in making a "reasonable accommodation” for a person with a disability. Research also reveals that Bush's appointee is way out of step with the public. In a 1999 Harris Poll, Americans were informed of the five major provisions of the ADA and then asked for their reactions. Each one of these five provisions was supported by at least 85 percent of Americans.  

Of course, every task requires the right tools, and this is no less true when it comes to ensuring fairness for our students. One key tool is the “disparate impact” standard -- an important measure that focuses on the discriminatory effect of laws and practices, rather than the motives behind them. The “disparate impact” standard has enabled federal officials through the years to identify and eliminate discriminatory education practices. 

Unfortunately, Reynolds firmly opposes this standard. His position would effectively deny justice to a large majority of discrimination victims, whether that discrimination is based on race, sex, national origin, or disability status. 

This is yet another reason why so many leaders and organizations representing the disability community have publicly urged the Senate to reject Reynolds' nomination. This includes Justin Dart, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and father of the ADA, the National Organization on Disability, National Disabled Student Union, Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, and the National Spinal Cord Injury Network. 

While testifying against one of President Clinton's nominees for the Department of Justice, Reynolds revealed his standards for judging executive branch appointments. He urged a Senate committee to “disqualify any candidate whose background indicates that his ideological beliefs will probably lead him to ignore the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.” 

Indeed, Reynolds not only failed President Bush's test - he also failed his own. 


- Jim Ward