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Education Department Delays Civil Rights Data Collection, Citing COVID-19

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 14, 2020 5 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education is delaying the federal collection of civil rights data—a biennial survey that’s considered a key source of information about the nation’s students, teachers, and schools—because of the coronavirus.

Instead of covering the 2019-20 school year, as originally planned, the Education Department said earlier this month that it will move the latest round of the Civil Rights Data Collection to the upcoming school year. In addition, the department raised the possibility of not undertaking the collection of data from every public school in the country in the latest round, which would be a significant departure from recent years.

In a document attached to proposed changes to the collection—more on that below—the Education Department said that based on concerns it heard from districts and others about the collection during the pandemic, it “has decided to shift the 2019−20 CRDC to the 2020−21 school year.” A separate supplemental document also states that this decision has been made.

There’s no federal law mandating that this data collection take place every two years. The department said references to the 2019-20 data collection have changed to refer to the 2020-21 collection.

In response to questions, the Education Department said it has “determined to postpone other data collections” besides the CRDC. School districts that already began collecting the data internally “can release it to the public as they deem appropriate.”

“One of the primary reasons for the postponement is the uncertainty and unreliability of any data collected for the 2019-2020 school year, given the significant and rapid change that happened in most schools when the coronavirus outbreak began,” department spokeswoman Angela Morabito said. “What will most benefit vulnerable students is returning to the classroom and resuming full-time instruction.”

Last November, the department released proposed changes to the substance of the CRDC. The department said it wanted to stop gathering data about preschool enrollment by race, the number of first-year teachers, and a lot of school-level funding information. Simultaneously, the department proposed collecting more information about sexual violence and religious harassment.

Not surprisingly, that plan divided opinion in the education community. That proposed shift in the collection is open for public comment until Aug. 6. It’s in documents about that proposed change that the department announced its decision to delay the latest collection until 2020-21.

The Civil Rights Data Collection is some of the most high-profile information the Education Department shares with the public about the nation’s schools. It’s used by the federal government, researchers, and education lobbyists to enforce laws, research various policies and practices, and push for federal and other government action on various issues. It’s taken place every two years since 1968, and since 2011-12 it’s collected a wealth of data from every public school in America.

And it’s been used to leverage prominent and controversial initiatives—the Obama administration used the data from the collection to help justify 2014 guidance to schools about racial disparities in school discipline, for example.

That’s not to say the data provided is flawless. It’s self-reported by school districts and has contained glaring errors in the past, as in the case of a California district that initially and erroneously reported more than 200 rapes in one year. In another instance, districts reported school shootings that did not actually take place. Recently, there have also been jarring and inexplicable swings in data about school segregation.

It’s also worth remembering that schools already collect a significant portion of the data required by the CRDC for their states. And it’s not entirely clear to what extent school districts collected information for the federal collection before the pandemic took hold.

For the 2020-21 collection, the department also says it plans to conduct a CRDC collection in a way that covers schools universally. However, if it determines that a universal collection of data from all schools and districts is not possible, the department says, “Then OCR [the office for civil rights] will work closely with NCES to finalize the sample selection plan.”

‘Really Important to Understanding’

Because of the unprecedented burden on schools the coronavirus is imposing, “a significant adjustment to the CRDC is justified,” said Kristen Harper, the director of policy and outreach at Child Trends, a research group.

However, she expressed concern that the department chose to delay, rather than modify, the entire data collection. She said that while some data about student and teacher behavior may be less relevant during a pandemic when many schools are operating remotely, information about other aspects of schools like the number of school nurses and counselors on staff has become, if anything, even more crucial than before the virus began to spread.

“There are metrics that are really important to understanding differences in educational opportunities and school capacity,” Harper said.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee and a frequent critic of how DeVos has handled education civil rights, said in a statement that the department’s decision to delay the collection “undermines congressional intent to report vital information to parents and the public.”

“The Department cannot continue relying on a pandemic as an excuse to ignore its responsibility to confront discrimination in public education,” Scott said.

Harper also noted that the department has yet to release the data from the 2017-18 CRDC. The 2015-16 CRDC is the most recent such data collection to be publicly released by the department.

In a public comment on a federal website that includes notification of the department’s decision, Peter Desjardins, who identified himself as a school administrator, wrote, “At this time many LEAs are stretched to the brink trying to keep up with new demands set by the COVID-19 closures. The CRDC reporting [requirement] is burdensome to begin with. Asking schools to submit this data would be one more mandate that takes resources from children.”