O.C.R. Impeding Rights Surveys, Groups Contend
Completion of Work by Year End Said Unlikely
Two national organizations that in the past took opposing stances on the appropriateness of federal statistics-gathering for civil-rights purposes are now pressuring federal officials to expedite the government's biennial civil-rights survey of school districts.
In letters and private meetings with federal officials over the past four months, representatives of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. have argued that the Education Department's office for civil rights not only has sanctioned changes in the survey that will make it less useful but has dragged its feet so long in getting the survey to local school officials that they will find it difficult to complete the survey this calendar year.
The NAACP legal group and the state chiefs have expressed similar concerns about a second civil-rights survey that identifies vocational schools, comprehensive high schools, and community or junior colleges that may be out of compliance with civil-rights laws pertaining to vocational education.
Harry M. Singleton, assistant secretary of education for civil rights and the officer responsible for the surveys, did not respond last week to a reporter's repeated phone calls regarding the surveys.
Hunter C. Harrison Jr., the Education Department's deputy general counsel, commented that Undersecretary of Education Gary L. Jones is concerned about the surveys. "He is so concerned about it that he has taken a personal role in trying to get it moving so that we can get it out to the field," Mr. Harrison said. "He has just made the actors here aware of his concern and told them to keep it moving, to get it moving fast."
Mr. Harrison added that he believed O.C.R.'s proposed changes in the surveys were based on a review of the surveys undertaken by the agency. "My understanding of how these changes were arrived at," he said, "was that the office for civil rights undertook a review... in terms of the use that the office made of those surveys, and that largely those changes were dictated by that review and not by the Paperwork Reduction Act [of 1980] or by the Office of Management and Budget... It's my understanding that O.C.R. generated those changes to fit in with their enforcement tactics."
Said Key to Monitoring
The controversial surveys--the Elementary and Secondary School Civil Rights Survey and the Vocational Education Survey--are essential to the government's monitoring of schools' compliance with antidiscrimination laws, according to Cynthia G. Brown, who served as director of OCR under President Carter and is now director of the Federal Education Project of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. In the past, OCR has used results from the surveys to target schools and school districts for on-site field visits and compliance reviews to investigate for civil-rights violations, according to Ms. Brown.
In addition, regular completion of the two surveys, one of which dates back to 1966, was ordered last year by the federal judge presiding over the longest-running civil-rights suit against the government, Adams v. Bell.
"The whole survey-clearance process should have been settled a year ago," said Edward B. Penry, chairman of Council of Chief State School Officers' civil-rights task force and director of administrative and survey-research services for the Philadelphia Public Schools. "You can't expect people to provide data this school year when they were not required or notified that they were going to have to report it."
"The local education agencies are going to have to do an awful lot more work to provide whatever data they can provide. And the recipients of the data--the OCR-- and the users of the data--the advocacy groups--will have data that are less complete and less accurate."
In the past, school districts that were required to participate in the surveys were notified by OCR the February before the fall mailing date of the surveys, according to CCSSO officials.
But this year OCR has not sent out any notices, and the agency is now more than seven months behind schedule in preparing the surveys, which include changes that it claims were mandated by the Reagan Administration's Office of Management and Budget under the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980.
Those changes--particularly in the sampling technique used to select schools to participate in the surveys--could make it harder for OCR to enforce antidiscrimination laws, according to Phyllis McClure, deputy director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.
Ms. McClure explained that OCR's proposed sampling changes would not provide current information on some school districts, posing a particularly serious problem because of constant changes in district enrollment.
"Imagine trying to do a survey of nursing-home patients based on a population drawn eight or 10 years ago," she said. "Half of the patients might be dead by now... As it is, there are districts now... that were last surveyed in 1978, and on which information is already out of date. By doing what they're doing, OCR is eventually going to lose track of the universe [of schools]."
She said the problem could force the agency to survey every school district in the country sometime during the 1980's in order to regain an up-to-date database on which to draw for future surveys.
The last time that occurred was in 1976, when the elementary and secondary school survey was expanded to include questions regarding discrimination against women and handicapped students. That survey, the most extensive civil-rights survey of American schools ever conducted, resulted in such a storm of protest from educators claiming that the survey was too burdensome that it was nearly canceled.
"OCR has not offered a single rational or believable reason for abandoning the former sampling methodology, which so well accommodated the needs of all concerned," Ms. McClure said.
Former Strategy Recommended
On Aug. 20, the Council of Chief State School Officers sent the Education Department a letter stating that "if the revised forms cannot be cleared expeditiously and the respondents appropriately notified of their inclusion in the sample in the next 30 days, we strongly recommend a return to the 1982 form and the former sampling strategy since that format has been approved in the past."
Both the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. and the council also advocate delaying the vocational-education survey by one year. They argue that continued problems with the survey instrument and sampling technique, and likely problems that large school districts would have in completing both surveys in the same year, make it politically and practically ill-advised to continue planning the survey for completion in 1984.
"OCR's delay in designing the surveys and in giving school systems notice of their inclusion is unconscionable," said Ms. McClure. "The validity of the data depends as much on the federal government's accommodation to school systems' planning as it does on the cooperation of schools in providing the data. OCR has demonstrated a total lack of cooperation."
"It's almost as if they [OCR] intend to build resentment and confusion, and I think it's totally unnecessary," said Ms. Brown. "I don't think the [elementary- and secondary-school] survey needed to be changed. I thought that the office had worked out a useful way of conducting the survey that school systems and state education agencies had found workable and also usable for their own purposes. I'm a great believer in 'if it's not broke, don't fix it."'
History of Controversy
Although many educators now accept the civil-rights surveys, they have had a controversial history. In 1976, when the largest elementary and secondary survey was conducted in all 16,000 school districts, one Massachusetts school superintendent wrote: "I have just received from the Office for Civil Rights 129 pages, in sextuplicate, of bureaucratic balderdash... In our opinion, these reports are unrealistic, wasteful of energy, time, and money, and unnecessary."
Political furor surrounding the survey was so great that year that the Office of Management and Budget decided to cancel the survey, and reversed its position only under strong pressure from civil-rights groups.
Need for Surveys Accepted
Today, according to George Rush, director of the CCSSO/National Center for Education Statistics network-coordination project, "the great majority of school districts recognize the need for continued monitoring to identify and, insofar as possible, eliminate discriminatory practices. And I think the districts and the states feel that the [elementary and secondary survey] has been one of the most effective compromises in terms of the development of a data-reporting system that will effectively accommodate this kind of monitoring."
Many states and large school districts, he added, have developed record-keeping systems that they use themselves to spot potentially discriminatory practices on the basis of the survey requirements and have also taken advantage of the survey's aggregate information for their own purposes.
Some states have set up independent systems that are capable of meeting the OCR requirements, he noted, while others have established their general record-keeping systems so that the kind of information required by OCR is collected at the same time as the rest of their state data.
The survey "was a lot of information to try to gather originally, back many years ago, but we've done it for 20 years now, close to it, I guess," said Herman R. Shoemaker, director of employee relations for the Mobile, Ala., school district. "As far as filling out the survey, it's not a big deal anymore. We don't have any problems filling it out. We've done it for years and years."
Since 1976, only a sample of schools nationwide have had w complete the biennial surveys in any given year. The 1982 survey, for example, was completed by 3,129 school districts and 29,000 schools.
The biennial schools survey has two parts: a districtwide form and a more detailed form for individual schools. The latter is six pages long (minus instructions) and takes approximately eight hours for schools to complete, according to OCR documents; the districtwide form is one page long (minus instructions) and takes approximately one hour for a district official to complete.
Since 1976, only a sample of schools nationwide have had to complete the forms in any given year. The 1982 survey, for example, was completed by 3,129 school districts and 29,000 schools.
To Survey 4,970 Schools in 1984
The first vocational-education survey sampled 9,200 schools nationwide in 1979. In 1984, OCR plans to have only 4,970 schools complete the amended questionnaire.
The schools survey asks for a student breakdown by race, sex, and handicapping condition on special-education placements; discipline statistics (suspensions, corporal punishment, expulsions); certain vocational-education statistics; classroom assignments for specific grades and programs; and the number of limited-English-proficient students and their placement in bilingual or English-as-a-Second-Language programs.
The vocational survey includes questions on the proportion of male and female students, racial and language minorities, and handicapped individuals in a given vocational program. It shows whether such groups may be under- or over-represented in certain programs and whether they lack access to certain vocational programs or schools.
Paperwork Reduction Sought
The problem with the surveys began about a year ago, when the Office of Management and Budget suggested to the Education Department that as part of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980, the department should try to "get comparable, equally useful results by a somewhat less burdensome sample and methodology" than that used in previous years.
But according to officials within both OMB and the information-management division of the Education Department, OCR began the process of changing the surveys too late in the year. By May, representatives of the CCSSO and the NAACP were trying to find out why OCR was late in its planning for the surveys and exactly what changes the agency hoped to make.
They describe a "frustrating" series of exchanges with the agency over the course of the next few months as they attempted to obtain information and cooperation--often with little success, according to those who participated in the discussions.
Now some school-district officials are also worried about ocr's falling behind schedule.
"We had a major problem [with the data collection] in 1976," said J. Vincent Madden, manager of data acquisition and forms control for the California Department of Education. "It's less of a problem now than it was then... We've tried to coordinate the state collection of data with the federal collection. But the delay this year is really going to hurt. We think they're going to tell school districts that unless they collect the data, they're out of compliance, even with the delay."
Last Survey in 1982
Mr. Madden said California's data-collection system is set up on a biennial basis to parallel the federal data-collection requirements. When the state still had not heard from the federal government earlier this year, after repeated attempts to work with OCR, it had to go ahead with its own planning, and will collect data Oct. 15, according to Mr. Madden.
The federal government surveyed some 150 California school districts in 1982, the last time that the elementary- and secondary-school survey was conducted. To survey those districts again separately from the October data collection would cost approximately $3 million, Mr. Madden estimated.
A decision about whether to proceed with the surveys in their revised form is expected from the Office of Management and Budget this week.
Vol. 04, Issue 02, Page 1, 25