The recent article by Education Editor Eric Owens on the activities of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reminded me of that old axiom, “The more things change the more they stay the same.” The mission of agencies will forever morph in order to stay relevant.
In my first few months in office as a congressman in 1993, I received a visit in my district office by two people employed by the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education’s regional office in downtown Atlanta. They told me a story about the office’s activity regarding the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. It was quite a story, so I decided to look into the matter.
At about 1:00 PM on a Friday, upon returning from Washington, I went directly to the OCR unannounced. As I walked into the office the director of the agency was just leaving. I introduced myself and apologized and said I could come back at another time if it would be more convenient.
He assured me that it would not be necessary. He could catch the next flight home. I asked where he lived. He said that he lived in St. Louis and that by not moving to Atlanta his flights and hotel bills were covered and he could receive temporary duty pay. He flew in every Monday and flew out every Friday. He was actually quite proud of his income enhancement.
My first question was to ask him what his budget was. “That’s a good question,” he said. “I really don’t know.”
As luck would have it his financial officer was still in and we stepped into his office and asked him.
“I don’t know.” The financial officer said. “Let me call DC and find out.”
The person in DC who knew that secret number was not in the office on that Friday afternoon and I was assured that they would get me that number and mail it to me.
I then asked them what the office did. At that time they were hard at work enforcing the Americans With Disabilities Act. I asked who was guilty of non-compliance and was told that the biggest culprits were schools. Particularly lunchrooms.
“Are those problems reported by students or parents?” I asked.
“Oh they’re not reported. We have to go out and find them.”
“And how do you do that?” I asked.
He smiled at me as he vouchsafed his clever solution to this dastardly offense: “There are advocacy groups on behalf of the disabled and we pay them to do it,” he said proudly. “Just last week an organization in Alabama sent us cases against 22 schools. They go into the lunchroom and measure the width of the aisle the kids go through and make sure there are no steps. There are a lot of changes schools have to make. You’d be amazed at how many school districts aren’t even aware of the law.”
“How much did you pay the groups for uncovering these offenses?” I asked. He said he would get that number from DC too.
My Congressional district office had three or four employees who handled about 750 constituent cases each year. They found us all on their own.
His office had five or six times as many employees and dealt with fewer than 125 cases. The role of the caseworker was to gather all of the facts and then type it up on a form.
He had a few attorneys who then reviewed the forms and when approved they were handed off to another employee who typed that form on a computer that was on line with the DC office.
I asked him if his attorneys would handle any necessary legal action. “No.” He said. “Any legal activity was outsourced.”
At about that time the door flew open and a lady came angrily marching into the conversation. She asked me if I routinely walked into government agencies without an appointment. I assured her that I did and that she shouldn’t feel special.
The way she looked at the director made it clear to me that while he had the title she had the clout. He decided that he’d better get to the airport.
The lady asked me if I got all the information I came for. “No I didn’t,” I said. ‘Perhaps you can help me. What is your annual budget?”
She looked at me as though I was extremely rude and said that she would find out and mail it to me.
I decided to take one more shot at this by talking to the newly appointed director of the agency in DC. He was an energetic young political appointee from Chicago who arrived at my office with a grizzled older lady who clearly came along to keep him on a short leash.