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Equity & Diversity

DeVos Seeks More Civil Rights Data on Sexual Violence, Religious Harassment

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 20, 2019 9 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education has proposed collecting new information about documented incidents of sexual violence committed by and against school staff, as well as new data about harassment and bullying in schools based on perceived religious affiliation.

In addition, the Education Department’s office for civil rights proposes to no longer track the number of first-year teachers, the number of students in credit recovery, and a host of school-level funding data. The data collection on advanced coursework and early-childhood education programs would shift.

And the proposal would end the disaggregation of preschool student enrollment by race. That, in turn, could make it much more difficult to calculate inequalities in areas such as discipline and access.

The proposed changes to the Civil Rights Data Collection, published Thursday, would go into effect for the 2019-2020 school year. The data, which is collected every two years, is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive source of information on everything from student absenteeism to discipline that is used by researchers and practitioners.

A 60-day comment period on the proposals ends Nov. 18. The Education Department says these new elements are of “pressing concern” and would better inform both technical assistance and enforcement. An introduction to the proposals also states the “changes will have the net effect of reducing burden on school districts.” Giving local schools more flexibility in various ways has been a top priority for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The proposals also align with President Donald Trump’s push for regulatory reform across government, specifically to cut back on regulations and their impact.

The Education Department did not respond to questions about the Civil Rights Data Collection proposals by Education Week’s Friday deadline.

DeVos’ approach to civil rights has been one of the most controversial elements of her tenure. Her decisions, such as her withdrawal of Obama administration guidance on transgender students, as well as how she’s handled investigations into civil rights complaints, have drawn fierce detractors as well as defenders. These proposals about what data to collect and not collect going forward will likely spark debate once again.

However, it’s important to remember that changes to what education civil rights data the federal government collects are routine. For example, the Obama administration required school districts to provide new information about bullying on the basis of perceived sexual orientation in the 2015-16 data collection.

It’s not immediately clear how many of the proposed new data collections would be mandatory for school districts for the 2019-20 school year. New data questions are often voluntary for schools and districts for one collection cycle before they become mandatory. The documents posted Thursday do refer to the “mandatory civil rights data collection.”

Here’s some more detail about what’s in the proposed shifts in civil rights data collection:

Religious Harassment of Students

The new data on religious harassment and bullying in schools would be disaggregated by 14 religion categories identified in the 2015 Federal Bureau of Investigation manual (page 19) for hate-crimes investigations. The Trump administration has expressed a strong interest in combatting allegations of anti-Israel bias in higher education. (The CRDC itself does not cover higher education.) The survey previously asked about harassment on the basis of religion in general, but it did not ask schools to break that information down by specific religious groups. Harassment data collected by the office for civil rights has proven notoriously tricky to parse in the past.

It’s important to remember that schools can’t ask students about their religion or their sexual orientation, even though they can obviously be bullied on that basis. The proposal makes it clear that the harassment and bullying can be on the basis of “perceived religion” as reported by the school, regardless of whether a student is actually a member of that religion.

Preschool Suspensions by Race

Under the proposal, the civil rights office would no longer break down preschool enrollment by race. This move could create hurdles to attempts to analyze racial inequities in access and discipline. In 2016, the Obama administration reported that in the 2013-14 school year, black children constituted 19 percent of preschool enrollment but 47 percent of suspended children. That sort of information led to major changes on the state and local levels, like new restrictions or bans on preschool suspensions.

Highlighting and addressing that kind of discipline disparity in preschool as well as K-12 was a top priority for Obama’s Education Department. In 2014, the administration issued guidance intended to ultimately reduce racial disparities in school discipline; DeVos revoked this guidance last year.

Total preschool suspensions would still be part of the data collection. The proposal states these changes would “reduce burden” on school districts. For more on preschool suspension data, go here. In addition, the OCR proposal would combine previously collected statistics that separately tracked students who received one out-of-school suspension and those who received more than one. In addition, the 2019-2020 data collection would no longer include data such as whether a district offered early-childhood education programs, and whether these were full-day or partial-day programs, among other data points.

Sexual Violence and Educators

To justify the new data collection on sexual violence involving staff, the proposal states that from 2009 to 2018, the office for civil rights observed a 10-fold increase in incidents of sexual violence. More detailed information would help the federal government address this situation, the department’s says. The proposal also includes more data collections on allegations of sexual assault or rape or attempted rape that are followed by reassignments, or retirements or resignations prior to final termination or discipline.

Key point: The Education Department posted information on “serious crimes” in schools for the first time in the 2015-16 civil rights data collection. But there were a number of problems related to this data, including a major error by one California district that initially reported more than 200 rapes occured that school year. Also see this NPR story on school shootings reported by districts in the CRDC that did not in fact take place.

In 2018, our colleague Arianna Prothero talked with teachers who were sexually harassed or assaulted, and why they kept silent. An Education Week Research Center survey found, for example, that one in four women educators reported being either assaulted or harassed at work.

Teacher Experience and Absenteeism

In addition to proposing to retire the collection on the number of full-time, first-year teachers, the OCR would no longer collect the number of full-time, second-year teachers. Civil rights groups have long been concerned that black and Latino students and students in low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately taught by relatively new teachers.

The office for civil rights also proposed no longer tracking the number of teachers who were absent 10 or more days in a school year. Last year, we reported that 28 percent of teachers were absent for more than 10 school days during the 2015-16 school year. As we wrote last year, the data collection “counts days that are taken off for sick or personal leave when defining teacher absences, but does not include professional development, field trips, or other off-campus activities.”

Credit Recovery and Advanced Courses

Reports that the Education Department wanted to cut back on the data it collected on Advanced Placement courses first surfaced in 2017. In this proposal, the agency wants to stop collecting how many students took one or more AP exams for one or more AP courses, and the disaggregation of this data by race, sex, and other factors. It also wants to no longer track the number of students who enrolled in one or more AP courses but did not take any AP exams.

The elimination of tracking how many students are in credit-recovery programs might concern those who think that many such programs can be high volume but low quality. Research from the American Enterprise Institute last year found that 74 percent of high schools offer credit-recovery programs, and that one in 13 high school students participates in them.

School Finance

Related to the section about first- and second-year teachers: The CRDC would stop collecting several data points about school-level expenditures. These include:

  • The number of full-time equivalent personnel (K-12) funded with state and local funds
  • The number of full-time equivalent teachers (K-12) funded with state and local funds
  • The amount of salary expenditures for teachers (preschool-12) funded with federal, state, and local funds
  • The amount of non-personnel expenditures associated with regular K-12 instruction, pupil support, instructional support, and school administration, funded with state and local funds

It’s important to note here that in a separate data collection, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires districts to break out per-student spending on a school-by-school basis. This ongoing shift is seen as a win for civil rights groups and funding advocates who believe that many resources intended for poor students instead go to schools with large shares of wealthy students. However, figuring out how to categorize and collect that ESSA-mandated spending data is no easy task.

This may be an instance of the OCR deciding that the states’ work with districts under ESSA on this front means that a separate data collection that covers much of the same ground is no longer necessary.

The Quality and Politics of Education Civil Rights Data

Democrats have routinely attacked DeVos for her approach to civil rights, arguing that her approach to investigations and enforcement ignores systemic issues and leaves children of color and LGBT students more vulnerable to discrimination. The secretary, however, has countered that her office’s approach of approaching complaints on a case-by-case basis is more efficient than the Obama administration’s approach. At the same time, she has repeatedly pledged to protect students’ rights.

The Trump administration has sought to reduce the office for civil rights’ operating budget; however, Congress has actually approved a relatively small increase for the agency over the last two fiscal years.

An ongoing issue for the Civil Rights Data Collection is the quality of the data submitted by school districts to the Education Department. Just because a school district is required to collect certain data doesn’t mean it does a good job of doing it. It might take some time before districts get a good grasp of what exactly they’re being asked and the best ways to collect the relevant data. For another example of how the CRDC data can produce bizarre results, see this story about desegregation in districts.

Last month, the Education Department announced that in order to improve the quality of civil rights data, the National Center for Education Statistics would partner with the office for civil rights. The aim is to change the procedures schools use to submit data to the department.

For more background on the Civil Rights Data Collection, go here.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, left, visits a school in Ohio with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, center, in 2017. (Cathie Rowand/The Journal Gazette)

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Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor and Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer contributed to this article.