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Proposed Civil Rights Data Changes Draw Praise, Concern, Paperwork Complaints

By Evie Blad — November 19, 2019 8 min read
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The public comment window closed this week on proposed changes to the massive trove of civil rights data the U.S. Department of Education collects from every public school in the country.

The proposed changes—including the addition of new data on religious-based bullying and the elimination of an array of data points—drew praise from advocates concerned about anti-Semitism in schools, but concern from civil rights groups and policymakers who believe the elimination of some data will make it more difficult to weed out disparities.

School administrators from around the country said the process of submitting the mandatory data every two years remains cumbersome, and they cautioned that some proposed new data would be difficult to collect under their current systems and processes.

The federal data—used by researchers, educators, advocacy groups, and lawmakers— provides the most comprehensive view available of issues like access to advanced coursework, discipline, levels of student support staff, and racial disparities in those areas.

As we wrote in September, the Education Department’s proposed changes to the Civil Rights Data Collection include:

  • Breaking down incidents of bullying based on religion by the 14 religion categories identified in the 2015 Federal Bureau of Investigation manual for hate-crimes investigations.
  • Ending the breakdown of preschool enrollment data by race, figures that have been used to identify disproportionately high rates of discipline for black students compared to their white peers.
  • Reducing the types of data collected on preschool suspensions.
  • Adding six new data points about allegations or incidents of “rape or attempted rape” committed by school staff.
  • Ending collection of data on first-year and second-year teachers and data on teachers who are absent 10 days or more in a school year.
  • Limiting data collected on advanced coursework, like AP, and credit-recovery programs.
  • Eliminating several data points about school-level spending.

Here are a few general themes from the 601 public comments about the proposed changes.

Concerns About Anti-Semitism

A majority of the public comments were praise for plans to disaggregate incidents of religious-based bullying, all from commenters who said they were concerned about a rise of anti-Semitism in schools and its effects on the lives of Jewish students. A majority of those comments were a variation on a template that appears to come from an action alert sent by Stand With Us, a Jewish advocacy group.

“This change is critical so that government agencies can better respond to incidents of bullying and harassment, especially where ethnic and/or ancestral harassment is combined with direct religious discrimination,” those comments read. “As someone who is deeply concerned about the rise of antisemitism in America, I believe this change will enable authorities to better protect Jewish students.”

And that issue is one of concern for the Education Department. As we’ve written before, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Kenneth L. Marcus, previously served president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which advances civil and human rights for Jewish people.

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.

Some commenters expressed concern about how schools would carry out the mandate.

The Anti-Defamation League, for example, wrote that it was “concerned that a new emphasis on religion-based harassment could be used as a pretext to report conduct meant to protect the diverse student populations in America’s classrooms.”

“For example, individuals could report activities designed to promote understanding and inclusiveness towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning or queer (LGBTQ) students, parents, or teachers as harassment, claiming that these activities offend their religious beliefs,” the organization wrote. “Similarly, it should be clear that a student prohibited from or disciplined for bullying an LGBTQ classmate is not themselves facing religion-based harassment.”

And it may not be obvious that bullying is based on religion or perceived religion if a student is from a minority group that a teacher or administrator is not familiar with, American Atheists wrote.

“Disaggregating religious bullying data by using third parties’ perceptions of offenders’ motives will not be very effective. Bullying targeted at atheists and religious minorities is less likely to be understood, reported, and identified than bullying targeting religious majorities, because most Americans are less familiar with minority religions,” the organization wrote.

‘More Information, Not Less’

Civil rights organizations, researchers, state officials, and congressional Democrats voiced concern about the proposals to eliminate data, with a particular focus on data related to early education and school spending.

“By amending the collection of this data to remove key elements as proposed, the Department will significantly weaken a key source of information used to identify civil rights violations and address inequities in our educational system,” Democrats on the House Education Committee wrote. “This proposal will undermine the bipartisan will of Congress to report vital information to parents and to the public.”

The preschool data proposed for elimination helped exposed racial inequities in areas like discipline that “has spurred significant policy change across the country, including in California,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote.

“In 2017, California legislators passed a bill to limit preschool expulsion,” his comment said. “Analysis of this bill relied on data regarding preschool suspensions and expulsions collected through the [Civil Rights Data Collection] that demonstrated serious racial disparities in preschool discipline. The following year, the legislature built on this policy change by enacting a bill to provide additional mental health supports to preschool children. Limiting disciplinary data collected will impede policymakers’ ability to address disciplinary disparities in early childhood education.”

The data has been crucial in addressing and exposing “a preschool suspension crisis,” wrote the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a coalition of civil rights and student groups.

“The Department should collect more information, not less, regarding rates of preschool suspension and disparities based on race,” the group wrote, suggesting more data should be collected on use of force by school police.

Dignity in Schools also flagged concerns about reducing data on teacher experience and school spending, which was a priority for several other commenters.

“The Department’s largest cut to the CRDC involves completely eliminating the school funding portion of the survey,” wrote Education Trust on behalf of a coalition of 23 organizations. “This action would be devastating, given that the CRDC is the only data source that shows school level expenditures across the country.”

The Education Department justified the biggest proposed change, the elimination of school-level spending data, by arguing that the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires similar or identical data to be collected on the state level. Some commenters, including the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown, said the state-level data would be an adequate substitute, or even an improvement, over the existing federal data. But others said removing those questions from the form would eliminate a consistent national source of information that would allow for large-scale comparisons and analysis.

Other commenters concerned about the reduction in civil rights data included: the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National PTA, the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, the National Urban League, the Southern Education Foundation, and the National Council on Teacher Quality, which said it was concerned about the elimination of data on novice teachers and teacher absences.

“Continued access to these data through the CRDC can help families, educational leaders, and civil rights advocates understand the level of access that vulnerable student populations have to teachers who are most likely to contribute to their academic growth and achievement, as well as their life-long success,” NCTQ wrote.

Groups that represent lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students said they were concerned that the Education Department has proposed changing a question about incidents of bullying and harassment “on the basis of sex” to ask about “sexual harassment and harassment or bullying based on sex stereotypes.” The question should be phrased to include instances bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, wrote those organizations, which include student advocacy group GLSEN.

Some commenters, including Becerra, suggested that questions about teacher rape should include a wider scope of problematic behaviors, including sexual assault and harassment.

A Logistical Headache?

A significant portion of commenters used their feedback to lament the amount of time their districts spend collecting the data, and the logistical hurdles they face in reporting it accurately.

Proposals to eliminate some questions would help, but new data points would require significant adjustments to data software, legal review, and staff training, they wrote.

“As with all too many things promulgated within the hallowed halls of bureaucratic self-interest, this is another case of ‘One Size Does Not Fit All,’” wrote Pete Nasir the superintendent of a district with fewer than 350 students in Wellsville, Mo.

AASA, the School Superintendents Association, praised the proposed eliminations, noting that civil rights data collection “places a real burden on school districts.”

“Nationally, it takes district staff close to 1.5 million hours of time to collect and submit this data resulting in a cost of approximately $66 million that is diverted toward a federal data collection mandate,” AASA wrote. “We sincerely appreciate the DeVos Administration’s decision to decrease the burden of total responses by an LEA by 21.8%, yet there are still many data points that we question the value of continuing and the authority of [the Education Department] to collect this data.”