ED To Revise District Survey of Civil Rights

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Andre L. Guerrero wades through a lot of federal paperwork for the Arkansas education department. But in his job coordinating bilingual education and equity efforts, there's one document he finds particularly helpful.

"The Elementary and Secondary School Civil Rights Survey" is the only comprehensive tracking of how schools and districts comply with federal anti-discrimination laws, experts say. Produced biennially by the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights, it helps the agency enforce laws and identify civil rights trends in schools.

But faced with a dwindling budget, the OCR has decided to revamp the survey, looking at what it asks and how the information is collected and distributed. In the meantime, the source that people like Mr. Guerrero use to learn if schools are disproportionately disciplining minority children or are more prone to assign them to special education is up in the air.

The civil rights office is suspending the 1996 survey until the redesign is ready.

The disruption has opened the survey and the federal Education Department to broader concerns over how well the OCR can do its job with ever-diminishing resources. And civil rights groups fear that while the survey is on hold, schools may start to wonder if anyone in Washington is still keeping an eye on them.

Real Results

The survey, produced annually from 1968 to 1974 and every two years since then, has sometimes been criticized for producing dated and less-than-squeaky-clean data. But, civil rights experts say, it is the best source they have for knowing how schools treat minority children.

The OCR conducts the survey as part of its mission to protect disabled, minority, and limited-English-proficient students, as well as girls, from discrimination in schools. The 1994 survey polled 5,100 districts--nearly a third of the nation's 14,881 public school districts--including about 50,000 schools. Districts are picked for a random sampling, but those already under the OCR's microscope and districts with 25,000 students or more are usually included, too. Schools are required to answer the survey questions or risk losing federal aid.

The survey helps the OCR flag potential civil rights violations and target schools for compliance reviews. The results are meant to inform the regional OCR offices that investigate and offer technical assistance to schools, said Peter A. McCabe, an OCR program analyst and the coordinator of the survey redesign.

But state officials like Mr. Guerrero, community and advocacy groups, lawyers, researchers, and schools themselves also rely on the survey. Mr. Guerrero, for instance, uses the data from Arkansas schools to try to change school behavior and target areas that need his office's help.

"The state's not going to conduct a survey like that. It's politically untenable," Mr. Guerrero said. "We can do our work without it, but it won't be as good."

Groups like the National Coalition of Advocates for Students have used the OCR survey to lobby for change. In the 1980s, the Boston-based group used the report to show that some Florida schools disproportionately used corporal punishment and suspensions for black children. The state subsequently made major policy changes, said Joan First, the group's co-director.

Richard B. Fields, a civil rights lawyer in Memphis, Tenn., uses the OCR data constantly in desegregation cases. At first blush a school may look desegregated, he said, but the OCR survey is often the only tool that shows whether that desegregation holds true from classroom to classroom.

Uncertain Future

It's that level of detail that makes the OCR survey unique, experts say. Other parts of the Education Department collect some similar information; the special education division, for example, collects enrollment and placement data on students with disabilities. But unlike the OCR, it does not break its data out by race. The National Center for Education Statistics collects reams of data, but schools respond voluntarily.

Normally, schools receive the OCR surveys in the fall. They are then returned to the OCR, verified, edited, and reported. The whole process takes about two years and costs roughly $750,000, Mr. McCabe said.

Due to budget problems--the agency's funding has dropped 6 percent from fiscal 1995 to fiscal 1997--work on the 1994 survey was delayed. That report is expected to be out next month, Mr. McCabe said. And budget problems pushed OCR officials to decide to suspend the anticipated 1996 survey in favor of a redesign, he said. Also influencing the decision was a request from the OCR's regional offices, Mr. McCabe said. They asked that officials find a way to make the data arrive faster and in more high-tech form.

While the OCR now plans to send schools a revamped survey next fall and report results in 1998, Mr. McCabe acknowledged that the redesign schedule is ambitious. After talking with civil rights groups and others, a contractor will make initial recommendations on changes next month.

But the break in the traditional schedule, observers say, means schools may stop collecting the information without the expected knock at the schoolhouse door.

Groups like the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association suggest such fears are overblown. OCR officials, meantime, will send schools a letter this month telling them to keep collecting civil rights statistics.

Still, the larger question looming is what the survey will look like in the future. At this point, there are few answers. The OCR survey has built a continuing record on what schools and districts are doing, observers point out. Whether the new surveys will allow for such comparability remains to be seen.

"Is it administrative or budget convenience driving these changes, or is it what's the best data we need to have so kids aren't discriminated against?" asked Paul Weckstein, a co-director of the Center for Law and Education, a legal advocacy group here. "It's still an open question."

"This is a momentous decision, not just affecting children in schools now, but in the future," Ms. First of the NCAS added. "It's going on without sufficient input from the public, parents, and advocates for kids. It's not a sensible way to do business."

Vol. 16, Issue 15

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