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A Publication of THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN
University students benefit from lessons learned, taught by former civil rights head Norma Cantú, an expert in education litigation
By Chuck Halloran
After spreading the pages of the local Spanish-language daily neatly on the scarred kitchen table, Rosa Cantú patiently began teaching her precocious granddaughter to read about the Cold War in the late 1950s.
The child learned quickly. First, El Heraldo de Brownsville in Spanish, then the English version of the Brownsville Herald. By kindergarten, she devoured scarce books in both languages.
Decades later, the granddaughter, Norma Cantú, who had become a nationally known litigator, would remember her abuela's legacy as she worked at the same table preparing court documents for a famous lawsuit, Edgewood vs. Kirby, which finally narrowed the spending gap between rich and poor schools in Texas.
Her parents, who were always expanding their education, also studied with her, just 14 blocks from the border with Mexico.
Gregoria Cantú tackled college classes to become an elementary school principal; her husband, Federico, a local mail carrier, prepared for civil service exams. The table also served as homework central for the family's five other children.
But Norma Cantú, the eldest, never forgot Rosa's demanding kitchen tutelage. When her name was linked to unprecedented legal conflict, or targeted in searing media assaults, she would find serenity by recalling familiar kitchen scenes.
After obtaining her college degree at The University of Texas at Pan American, and teaching high school English for two years, she was accompanied by her entire family on the long drive northward when she first began legal studies at Harvard University Law School, graduating at age 22.
Fourteen years followed in trial and appellate litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). Brownsville neighbors proudly said she had sued her high school principal, college president and the state of Texas to improve minority access to better education, even though the former two administrators remain her friends.
Then she became the nation's top civil rights enforcer for education as the longest-serving head of the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) for eight years under President Bill Clinton.
"For the last two decades, Norma V. Cantú has been one of the leading names in the civil rights movement, particularly for U.S. Latinos," said Dean Manuel J. Justiz, who moved quickly to arrange a visiting professorship in the College of Education's Department of Educational Administration, dividing her time equally with his colleague, Dean William C. Powers Jr. of The University of Texas at Austin School of Law. She teaches seminars on law and education in both colleges.
"In the growth field of educational litigation," Justiz said, "she is one of the savviest analysts that students could ever hope to study with as they begin careers because they will confront schools filled with complex legal issues including equal gender opportunity in athletics under the still-controversial Title IX, non-discrimination in special education, disability rights, student disciplinary policies, access to special language services for English-language learners, allegations of racially hostile environments and so much, much more."
Cantú already has told her graduate students in education and law seminars that civil rights law is inherently controversial.
"Civil rights litigation has gradually changed since the 1960s," said Cantú. "It used to be enough to file suit, put it in the face of the people and demand that the power community fix it. We still have to do this, but we also face a new challenge: to provide solutions to civil rights issues."
After all, her landmark work on Edgewood vs. Kirby also was deeply entwined with her own personal history, which makes classroom lectures all the more riveting. Clearly, it has become the favorite case of her career, providing a model for similar lawsuits in at least 27 other states.
"This 1980 case shows what is possible, not only in the realm of court decisions but also in terms of public policy solutions. I worked with Al Kauffman, MALDEF's lead attorney, to document the differences between property-poor and property-rich school districts in Texas."
Much to her surprise, her own alma mater, Brownsville High School, played a starring role.
When she first taught ninth grade English before attending Harvard, more than 5,000 youths were jammed into one overcrowded facility, making it the second-largest high school nationwide. Windows could not be opened, students lined walls without seats, no air conditioning or heating existed and the classes were split into two shifts: seniors and juniors from 6 a.m. to noon; first and second years from 1 to 7 p.m., without any breaks for teachers.
"Every time that the citizens of Brownsville approved a bond issue, it still didn't matter," said Cantú. "They simply could not raise any money because the school district was so poor. It taught me many lessons about school funding at a very early age."
Today, Brownsville has five high schools, but 90 percent of all students still are below minimum family income levels. The dropout rate remains at 50 percent.
"When I went to Harvard, one of 13 Latinos in an entering class of 500, I didn't see myself as disadvantaged," she recalled. "The first thing I noticed was that all the libraries were open 24 hours a day ... it was wonderful. I kept reading and reading; all my advance information came from books.
"In Brownsville, you just didn't have good access to books. We didn't have a public library, so you tried to get to the community college or wherever."
These early experiences solidified a strong personal belief in access for all. During her MALDEF years, she focused on the plight of minority women and low-income children, while also supervising attorneys and investigators in five regional offices, along with directing a national education litigation project.
By February of 1993, she was looking forward to a long-postponed vacation, but it was not to be.
Instead, by the summer of 1993, she was fielding endless media calls from reporters who were delighted to find that the newly appointed head of the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Office was accessible and even promised a new direction for the office.
"In the (first) year that she has served as the Assistant Education Secretary for Civil Rights, Norma V. Cantú has moved through the once-moribund office like the blustery winds that sweep across the plains of her native Texas," wrote The New York Times, reporting that she had ordered her 10 regional offices to double the number of complaints they were investigating and to add more bilingual staff members.
Predictably, her energized agency drew critical fire, particularly from conservative media, which charged, for example, "that no regulatory agency in America is more determined to keep all the nation's schools and colleges under its thumb than Ms. Cantú's Office for Civil Rights." (The Weekly Standard)
She continually surprised reporters with her unruffled demeanor and ringing laugh, emphasizing that it was a lawyer's professional leadership duty to resolve disputes rather than engage in costly, protracted litigation.
As a committed advocate for children and education, however, she wasn't afraid to confront poverty and entrenched discrimination with new regulations and court cases. Her 1995 OCR Annual Report stressed a quick official response time, citing the resolution of more than 5,500 illegal discrimination complaints, up from 4,480 in 1993. In 1,800 cases, schools, colleges and universities chose voluntary corrective action, which solved underlying problems without adversarial proceedings.
Cantú explained that she didn't "feel like I'm on a mission impossible. Every time I hear of a new instance of discrimination, I also hear of a new instance where people are treated more equitably. That's what keeps me going."
For journalists probing her own racial beliefs stemming from her Texas roots, she responded: "I experienced a lot of love and support from Anglo teachers. I didn't fall for the stereotype that all Anglos must be racist."
When the year 2000 OCR Annual Report arrived last month capping her eight years the record demonstrated an unprecedented number of resolved discrimination complaints across a broad spectrum: more than 6,300.
Alleged discrimination on the basis of disability easily claimed more than half of all complaints, followed by 18 percent for race/natural origin disputes, including access to quality education, ability grouping, racial harassment, school discipline, assignment practices and service to English language learners.
Another 8 percent embraced alleged sex discrimination, usually for gender access to athletics and sexual harassment. Age discrimination accounted for 1 percent, and a final 11 percent included multiple discrimination complaints, particularly for the inappropriate assignment of minority students to special education involving both race/national origin and disability issues.
While she was preparing her University of Texas at Austin class lectures, reporters, who were anxious to obtain quotes about the new Bush administration's replacement for her old OCR position, once again were chasing Cantú.
Instead, she preferred to discuss how the Office of Civil Rights had adopted new techniques, training personnel in persuasion, conflict management and dispute resolution. A tough Government Accounting Office (GAO) study confirmed that the OCR had greatly increased efficiency.
The report noted that OCR's flexible complaint resolution process, using small teams of highly trained attorneys and investigators, had positively affected nearly six million students in its first data baseline year of 1998.
By fiscal year 2000, Cantú's efforts had seen the total increase to more than 7.6 million students, a 29 percent increase from the 1998 figures.
"There was also a side benefit," she said, "because more people got along better with one another, which helped all of us to focus more on the real mission of OCR. We realized that individuals come to work with different preferences, and that we had to create a safe environment so that everyone could learn and grow, while also developing methods of tolerating other folks' preferences."
Despite the "shark tank" nature of Washington, D.C., conflict, Cantú said her greatest personal challenge came from lobbying for money to train OCR staff, teaching them to listen to inevitable criticism.
"A complaint is a gift," she would often say to attorneys infuriated over policy or court decisions. "Washington is a geographical site where people go to complain, and it's easy to forget that your critics sometimes have a very good point."
Powers, dean of the law school, said, "We are delighted to have her (on the law school faculty) because Professor Cantú brings a great deal of real-world experience to our students."
Cantú's balanced approach was sorely tried in the aftermath of the 1996 Hopwood decision on The University of Texas at Austin campus, which effectively dismantled 30 years of affirmative action precedents.
In March, 1997, Cantú wrote officially as the OCR head to then-Texas Attorney General Dan Morales, telling him he had erred in interpreting the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision in Hopwood vs. Texas.
Morales had earlier written to all Texas institutions of higher learning, saying the Hopwood ruling prevented state campuses from using race as a factor in admissions, financial aid or retention programs. He also discouraged private Texas universities from following the same procedures.
Cantú, who had based her arguments on U.S. Justice Department briefs, said Hopwood only affected The University of Texas at Austin School of Law, and "should not be used to invalidate" other Texas affirmative action admissions programs.
U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm weighed into the disagreement, demanding that the U.S. Department of Education change its position and threatening congressional action.
When the U.S. Justice Department withdrew its briefs, Cantú was forced to clarify her prior position in yet another letter.
"I was a spokesperson for the government," she said ruefully. "But when the briefs were withdrawn, I had to pay attention, even though it clearly left me out on a limb. Later, when John Cornyn had become attorney general, he withdrew Morales's interpretation."
Typically, Cantú sought balance in the wake of the dispute, saying that the real solution should always focus on universities creating a welcoming climate that saw all students as valued members of an academic community.
Lately, she also is balancing her class load by signing up with Town Lake weekend walks and taking her niece to the San Antonio zoo treasured personal initiatives that once were impossible under Washington workaholic schedules.
"I'm very happy that Norma chose to come to my alma mater," said newly elected Austin Mayor Gus García, BBA '59, "because as the Texas flagship of higher learning, it has a responsibility to provide leadership in the development of our young people for our great state."
Cantú is equally pleased. "I am really enjoying the intellectual atmosphere at both the College of Education and the UT Law School," she said.
"I'm also looking forward to the 30th anniversary of Title IX next year."