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Civil Rights Data Advocacy at the State Level

In part one of this blog, Becoming a Civil Rights Data Advocate, I explored how advocates can obtain up-to-date education data collected by the federal government without waiting for the Education Department to publish it. Today, I will explain how to hold state and local education agencies accountable for collecting and posting civil rights education data.

Data advocates have long influenced the data collection efforts of the federal government. Over the past decade, advocates have also pushed state and local education agencies to collect and release data on how students are treated in their schools and justice systems.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the latest tool in our toolbox for advancing the collection of civil rights data at local and state levels. ESSA requires state and local education bodies to collect data and address discipline practices.

Using a full set of tools – from ESSA requirements to state and local policy work – is now more important than ever, as the Trump/DeVos Administration makes a full-scale retreat from meaningful civil rights enforcement.

From the Federal to the Local

The Obama Administration’s Education Department (ED) revitalized and expanded the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), a comprehensive dataset on academic and discipline measures. All state and local education agencies (including charters) receiving federal funds had to participate. ED took additional steps to analyze the data for the public, producing summaries of significant trends and problems in the form of data snapshots and state and national estimations. Advocates and researchers alike have used this federal dataset to press the case for reform nationally and locally. These combined efforts have been critical to establishing that the school-to-prison pipeline is a national problem.

For many years, advocates have pressured local and state entities to adopt laws and policies (such as local school resolutions or board mandates, state education agency policies, etc.) requiring them to collect and publicly release data documenting inequalities in school discipline. Some local and state policies have gone so far as to mandate that agencies monitor data trends for triggers that would require specific actions when patterns of systemic inequality emerge.

For example, Rhode Island law (S2168 as amended/H7056 as amended) requires districts to analyze annually disparities in the rates of suspension for students based on their race, ethnicity or disability status. If a disparity is found, the district must submit a report to the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education (which oversees policy making for the state education department), detailing specific corrective actions to address the disparity. The Rhode Island Department of Education maintains robust policy and data websites that address discipline issues, including racial disparities in discipline.

Similarly, Maryland regulations require the state education agency to assess whether there is a “disproportionate impact on minority students” in school discipline and to “assess the impact of discipline on special education students.” Where such patterns exist, local school systems must prepare and submit to the State Board “a plan to reduce the [disproportionate] impact within 1 year and eliminate it within 3 years.”

Legislation is pending in other states that would mandate the monitoring of disciplinary patterns and provide for corrective actions. For example, a Pennsylvania proposal would require the state education department to “identify schools and local educational agencies that are statistical outliers in the use of disciplinary exclusion.” The department would provide them with technical assistance or require them to establish disciplinary policy review committees (which would include parents and advocates). Proposed Delaware legislation requires schools that discipline 20% or more of their students to implement a school-wide discipline improvement plan.

Successes like these, to increase transparency and accountability in educational outcomes at the state and local level, are the result of hard-fought struggles by advocates, sometimes over the course of years.

Using ESSA to Hold Schools Accountable

It is a little-known fact that the new federal education law, ESSA, contains several important provisions to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline. Members of Congress wanted to curtail the power of the US Department of Education; in exchange, local and state agencies were forced to take more responsibility for addressing high rates of discipline.

Under Section 1111, the state plan (submitted to the federal ED) must describe how the state government will support Local Education Agencies (such as school districts, charter networks, etc.) in “improving school conditions for learning, including through reducing...the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom; and the use of aversive behavioral interventions that compromise student health and safety.”

Section 1112 requires local plans (submitted to the state) to detail how local schools and districts will work to reduce the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom, which may include identifying and supporting schools with high rates of discipline, disaggregated by each student sub-group (race/ethnicity, English Learner status, disability status).

On the data front, ESSA requires state and local education agencies to publish annual “report cards” on measures of school quality; climate; and safety, including information on in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, school-related arrests, referrals to law enforcement, chronic absenteeism, and incidents of violence (including bullying and harassment). Initially, in January 2017, the US Education Department advised state and local education agencies collect ESSA data in a way that is consistent with the CRDC. (This "non-regulatory guidance" was subsequently rescinded by the Trump Administration.) These “report cards” for 2017-2018 school year must be released to the public by Dec 31, 2018. Note that ESSA report cards are to come out every year, while the federal CRDC is collected and released every other year.

The Task Ahead

We must actively ensure these requirements are met. Our job is to make sure that that this data is collected, released to the public, and done in a way that is timely and accurate.

Here are some things we can do:

  • Get involved with the development of state ESSA plans. Make sure they address discipline and school climate issues.

  • Make sure that local and state agencies include information about discipline rates and disparities in their annual report cards.

  • Publicize these findings within school communities. Advocate that an action plan be developed to address problem areas.

  • Support legislation and local and state agency policy-making that requires data monitoring and corrective action.

  • Challenge bad data. I have discovered many instances in which data understates arrests and exclusionary discipline. Demand that it be corrected.

We must build a strong civil rights presence at local and state levels. We have tools to work with. Let’s use them.

Update - January 28, 2021

Full compliance with the ESSA requirement that education agencies report discipline data on annual report cards has been a problem in most states. While agencies have posted report cards, those reports cards do not include discipline and arrest data for the reported school year. Many school and state agencies post older discipline data. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Education's ESSA report cards for public schools in the state for 2018, 2019 and 2020 report discipline data drawn from the 2015 CRDC, although more up-to-date data is available.

A growing number of states have adopted laws that require education agencies to collect and report discipline data. They include Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the city of New York. Full details can be found here.

Harold Jordan is Nationwide Education Equity Coordinator 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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