How Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act Benefited Education

How Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act Benefited Education


By Damon C. Williams of the Philadelphia Tribune

Innocuous as it seemed at the time, the Title VI provision in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided a fundamental change in the way scholastic programs were funded. And now, almost a half century since the act’s passage, officials with the Department of Education paused to reflect on one of the most important pieces of American legislation.

“Forty-eight years ago [on July 2], President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act states, ‘No person in the United States shall, on the basis of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance,’” said United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

“In the education arena, Title VI applies to all elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities — public or private — that receive federal financial assistance, and its protection extends to all aspects of these institutions’ programs and activities. Title VI also prohibits denial of equal access to college and career preparatory courses and programs, and to other educational opportunities for English learners, as well and discriminatory discipline, harassment or other barriers to equal education.”

Although overshadowed by the greater Civil Rights Act, Title VI’s importance cannot be overstated. Since its inception, Title VI has helped in everything from the creation of a relatively equal education system to supporting post-secondary athletic programs for women students and creating equal access for students with disabilities. Title VI also led to the creation of statewide Civil Rights databases, which track schools and make sure they are in compliance with both the provision and the Act itself.

For example, civil rights data for the School District of Philadelphia has been collected and is now widely available online, thanks to Title VI, and it cast a new light on the school district’s operations. According to data compiled after the 2008-2009 academic year (the last in which a complete data set is available), Philadelphia schools experienced a 15.2:1 teacher-student ratio, and more than 28 percent of teachers missed ten or more days of school.

Thanks to Title VI, reports such as these from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights also detail problem areas, such as the disproportionate ratio between minority enrollment figures and disciplinary actions/suspensions. And the data also spells out that all of the 2,305 students with school-related arrests were referenced to city police, while 140 students were expelled due to the district’s zero-tolerance policy.

While proud of Title VI, Duncan is acutely aware of its results.

“But serious work remains to ensure equal opportunity for all students. A significant achievement gap persists between people of color and other groups. The high school graduation and bachelor’s degree rates for Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaska Native students and other racial and ethnic minorities are still far lower than those for whites. These trends are particularly troubling in an increasingly global economy, where a postsecondary degree or certificate is more necessary that ever for a stable, well-paying career,” Duncan said. “So while today is an occasion to celebrate the progress this nation has made under Title VI, continuing that progress will require a sustained commitment to an equal education for all students. The Department’s Office for Civil Rights will continue the legacy the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by vigorously enforcing Title VI and working to help end illegal discrimination in our nation’s schools so that all children can learn and succeed.”

Damon C. Williams writes for the Philadelphia Tribune. Contact him at (215) 893-5745 or