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On the Matter of Presidential Elections

Rights Watch

A recap of who's looking out for your best interests.

Illustration by William BrownPresidential elections matter. The executive branch plays a powerful role in enforcing federal civil rights laws—a fact often overlooked. In 2008, President Obama ran on a platform pledging to advance the cause of working men and women and to protect the most vulnerable among us. A review of the actions taken by federal agencies since 2009 shows beyond any doubt that the president has kept his word.

Just last year, NEA funded an appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of a teacher member from Idaho who claimed she was fired because of her disability and the school district’s refusal to provide an accommodation for her. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed an amicus brief with the court of appeals supporting NEA’s arguments. The case is still pending.

In 2009, DOJ successfully sued the Chicago Public Schools for discriminating against a pregnant teacher. The teacher won a substantial monetary award, and the school board agreed to adopt policies regarding maternity, child rearing, and family medical leave, and to provide staff training on those issues. 

Last year, DOJ sued the state of Alabama challenging that state’s harsh new anti-immigrant law that, among other things, was designed to deny a public education to undocumented students in violation of a U.S. Supreme Court decision. DOJ obtained an injunction preventing that part of the law from taking effect. NEA has joined with the National School Boards Association in filing an amicus brief in the Federal Court of Appeals, where the case is now pending. DOJ has also challenged anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, South Carolina, and Utah. The Arizona case will be heard later this year by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Obama administration has been particularly vigilant in policing nonpublic schools:

  • DOJ last year successfully sued Nobel Learning Communities, a private, for-profit network of some 180 schools in 15 states, for discriminating against students with disabilities. In a settlement, Nobel agreed to pay $215,000 in damages to individual students, adopt a nondiscrimination policy, provide training to administrators, and submit to DOJ oversight for two years.
  • In 2010, EEOC won a settlement totaling $570,000 from Imagine Schools, a nationwide charter school operator, for discriminating against two pregnant school workers. The settlement also mandates a non-discrimination policy, training, and EEOC oversight.
  • The same year, EEOC won a $53,000 settlement on behalf of two teachers who had been fired by a Georgia Christian school because of pregnancies.  
  • And in a case that is still pending, EEOC sued one of the largest for-profit education providers, Kaplan Higher Education Corporation, in 2010 alleging that the company has engaged in a systematic practice of refusing to hire African-American job applicants.
  • Of special interest to NEA members, EEOC has not hesitated to take on the growing problem of discrimination against older educators:
  • In North Carolina, EEOC obtained a $25,000 settlement on behalf of a public school teacher who had been denied promotion to assistant principal because of her age.
  • In 2009, EEOC filed an amicus brief in a ground-breaking case from Oklahoma City, successfully arguing that the trial court was wrong to dismiss a discrimination suit by an older educator that she had been demoted because of her age.
  • And last year, EEOC sued the Tempe Elementary School District No. 3 alleging that an early retirement incentive plan discriminates against older school employees.

In sharp contrast to the previous administration, the Department of Education (ED) under President Obama has taken meaningful action to make schools safe for all students and has taken a strong stance against the bullying of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (GLBT) students. 

  • In October 2010, ED’s Office for Civil Rights issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to every school district warning them of their obligations under federal law (Title IX) to stop student-on-student harassment, including the harassment of GLBT students.
  • In March 2011, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, and much of the program focused on the challenges faced by GLBT students.
  • And in June 2011, ED General Counsel Charles Rose issued legal guidelines cautioning school districts that, under the Equal Access Act, they cannot deny official recognition to Gay Straight Alliance clubs simply because school officials want “to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”

And in a major victory for NEA, President Obama’s Department of Labor reversed a policy adopted by the Bush administration that would have required all NEA state affiliates, even those with no private-sector members, to file lengthy and onerous federal disclosure statements about personnel salaries and other expenditures.

 —Michael D. Simpson, NEA Office of General Counsel


Find out which candidate is looking out for your best interests this election year. 

Illustration above: William L. Brown

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