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Become a civil rights data advocate

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  • trump and devos
    AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

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Equal and fair treatment of all students cannot be taken for granted. It must be monitored. For that, we need access to data – accurate data, reported on a regular basis and interpreted properly. Data advocacy has long been a part of civil rights work, whether it's in housing, employment, or education.

Since about 2009, the flow of education data coming out of the federal government has allowed us to document the school-to-prison pipeline and its impact on students with disabilities, young women, and students of color. Indeed, the data's release and interpretation have influenced debates about school climate and safety in communities and legislatures around the country.

We don’t know what will happen with access to meaningful school civil rights data under the regime of President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. What type of data will be made public? When will it be released? Will the U.S. Department of Education release reports summarizing key civil rights trends? All signs point to a decline in meaningful federal enforcement, with the Education Department paying less attention to reviewing data that may indicate systematic unfair treatment of students.

But the story doesn’t end there. Advocates can and must build a civil rights advocacy agenda at the state and local levels, and that work extends to data advocacy. The good news is that there are plenty of opportunities for that type of data advocacy.

I want to highlight these two data advocacy opportunities:

  • How you can obtain from local and state agencies the same data that are reported to the Education Department under the requirements for data collection.
  • Reporting at the state and local levels under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

 

What’s up at the federal level

In recent years, advocates have come to rely on the federal Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), collected by the U.S. Education Department every other year. The department describes the purpose of collecting the information as follows: “The CRDC collects data on leading civil rights indicators related to access and barriers to educational opportunity at the early childhood through grade 12 levels. The CRDC is also a longstanding and critical aspect of the overall enforcement and monitoring strategy used by the OCR [Office of Civil Rights in the Education Department] to ensure that recipients of the Department’s Federal financial assistance do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and disability.”

The most recent data posted on the public website cover the 2013-14 school year, but education agencies have recently submitted data covering the 2015-16 SY to the Education Department. There is a significant delay in posting nationwide data, typically two years after the completion of the school year for which it was collected. The full analysis of that data can take even longer.

In July 2017, the Education Department is expected to finally complete its work on the 2013-14 data. It will release state and national estimations (discipline rates for each state and for the country overall) and update its comparison graphs and data tool to enable users to compare discipline rates of up to 12 states. The Education Department will finally close the books on data for the school year that ended more than three years ago.

Obtaining U.S. data through the local connection

You don’t have to wait for the federal government to publish the most recent data in order to put your hands on it. Data for the 2015-16 school year have already been compiled and submitted to the Education Department. Between February and April 30 of this year, all publicly funded districts and schools (including charters) were required to submit civil rights data for the 2015-16 school year.

You can obtain the CRDC data for the 2015-16 school year by submitting a request under your state’s open records law to the sending agency (school district, charter school or network, state education agency, etc.). It is best to request the 2015-16 school year data now because the local or state agency is not required to keep the report once it has been submitted.

To make this process easier, a few of us data advocates have developed two simple templates for requesting data under a state’s open records law. They can be downloaded from our Using Data web page. The “simplified” template requests only discipline data. The “detailed” template can be used to request all data (including academic and discipline) submitted to the federal Education Department. Take a template, substitute the name of your state’s open records or right to know law (for the Freedom of Information Act) and any other relevant specifics (such as deadlines imposed by law and a request for a fee waiver), and let it rip.  Here is an example of a response we received from a Pennsylvania district for data on one middle school.

Useful tips

These data for 2015-16 document a broader range of disciplinary issues.

For 2015-16, education agencies were required to provide data on additional issues. Some items that were considered optional for the 2013-14 CRDC are mandatory for the 2015-16 CRDC. Of special note are questions about:

  • Discipline in preschool programs (including corporal punishment).
  • Corporal punishment at all levels.
  • School days missed by students who received out-of-school suspensions.
  • Students transferred for disciplinary reasons to alternative schools.
  • Allegations of harassment or bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or religion.
  • Students who participated in a justice facility educational program.
  • The number of sworn law enforcement officers (including school resource officers).

 

You may be able to obtain data from state agencies.

Some State Education Agencies, such as departments of public instruction or education, submit data for the entire state. You can submit a request to your state education agency (using one of the above-mentioned templates) if you are interested in comparing districts or doing a state-level analysis, or if your local education agency isn’t being helpful. For the 2013-14 CRDC, these states submitted some or all data that way: Colorado, Florida, *Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin. We’ve learned that additional states are now using this method. I encourage you to ask your state agency whether it submits data for the entire state.  

Under ESSA, state education agencies will have an expanded role in collecting and reporting discipline data and ensuring that local education agencies do so as well.

Going forward

Information is your friend. Demand access to data, and use that information to protect the civil rights of young people.

Advocates must hold local and state institutions accountable for collecting and releasing data and for correcting bad data. Our Using Data web page contains many tools to help you get started, including a helpful webinar on using civil rights data in local efforts.

In Part Two of this blog, we’ll talk about the local and state discipline data reporting requirements of ESSA and about state and local advocacy strategies. In Part Three, we will review helpful tools you can use to make sense of data.

*In Georgia, the state submitted partial data, which was then supplemented by local agencies.

Harold Jordan is senior policy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the author of Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools.

 

 

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