Proposed changes to the massive trove of civil rights data the U.S. Department of Education collects from every public school in the country—including the addition of information on religous-based bullying and elimination of other data points—has drawn organized praise from advocates concerned about anti-Semitism in schools.
But the proposals have also prompted concern from other civil rights groups and policymakers who believe some changes being sought by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ team will make it harder to weed out disparities.
In public comments that closed last week, school administrators from around the country also 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—provide the most comprehensive view available of issues like access to advanced coursework, discipline, levels of student-support staff, and racial disparities in those areas.
Proposed changes to the Civil Rights Data Collection include:
• Breaking down incidents of bullying based on religion.
• Ending the breakdown of preschool-enrollment data by race.
• Reducing the types of data collected on preschool suspensions.
• Adding new data points about allegations or incidents of “rape or attempted rape” by school staff.
• Ending collection of data on first- 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 Advanced Placement, and credit-recovery programs.
• Eliminating several data points about school-level spending.
A few general themes emerged from the 601 public comments about the proposed changes.
A majority of the comments praised 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 said.
Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth L. Marcus previously served as the president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which advances civil and human rights for Jewish people. That issue is one of concern for the Education Department.
The federal 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.
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 toward 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.
And the American Atheists organization wrote: “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.”
Civil rights groups, researchers, state officials, and congressional Democrats voiced particular concern about the proposal to eliminate data on early education and school spending.
“This proposal will undermine the bipartisan will of Congress to report vital information to parents and to the public,” Democrats on the House Education Committee wrote.
The preschool data proposed for elimination helped expose racial inequities in areas like discipline that have “spurred significant policy change across the country, including in California,” wrote California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
“Limiting disciplinary data collected will impede policymakers’ ability to address disciplinary disparities in early-childhood education,” he said.
The data have 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 group also flagged concerns about reducing data on teacher experience and school spending.
“This action would be devastating, given that the CRDC is the only data source that shows school-level expenditures across the country,” Dignity in Schools said.
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 at the state level. Some commenters said the state-level data would be an adequate substitute, or even an improvement. But others said removing those questions would eliminate a consistent national source of information that would allow for large-scale comparisons and analyses.
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.
Some commenters, including Becerra, also 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 lamented the amount of time their districts spend collecting the data and the logistical hurdles they face in reporting it accurately.
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 team’s] decision to decrease the burden of total responses by a [local education agency] by 21.8 percent, 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.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as Clashing Views On Civil Rights Data Proposal