Newly-Unveiled Office for Civil Rights Data Shows Persistent Gaps in Educational Equity

On June 7, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) provided the public with a “First Look” at the data gathered during its biennial Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) for the 2013-2014 school year.

In its accompanying press release, OCR highlighted data points that reveal persistent disparities in educational equity and opportunity for students across several key areas, including:

  • Student Discipline While the 2013-2014 data reflected a nearly 20% decrease in total out-of-school suspensions from the 2011-2012 data, there was no significant narrowing of the racial and disability gaps in student discipline outcomes.

    • Students of color– particularly black students – face disproportionately high rates of suspension and expulsion from school, as well as referrals to law enforcement.
    • Students with disabilities are also suspended from school at disproportionately high rates, and are further subjected to 67% of all restraints or seclusions administered despite comprising only 12% of the total student population.

  • Access to Advanced Courses Nationwide, the data showed an overall lack of access to high-rigor courses that help ensure college and career readiness.  Over 50% of U.S. high schools do not offer calculus, 40% do not offer physics, over 25% do not offer chemistry, and over 20% do not offer Algebra II.  Moreover, the data reveal that the lack of opportunity to access these courses is not equally distributed across student populations.

    • High schools with high percentages of black and Latino student enrollment have significantly lower rates of offering calculus, physics, chemistry and Algebra II courses than high schools with low black and Latino enrollment.
    • Black and Latino students, English learner students, and students with disabilities are enrolled in GATE programs at disproportionately low rates.
    • Female students are underrepresented in enrollment in physics courses.

  • Teacher Qualifications The data also reveal that students of color are disproportionately taught by inexperienced teachers.

    • Schools with high black and Latino enrollment have twice as many first-year teachers as schools with low black and Latino enrollment.
    • Black, Latino, and American Indian or Alaska Native students are more likely than white students to attend schools where more than 20% of the teachers have not met all state certification or licensure requirements.

OCR promises to issue a subsequent series of analyses regarding the 2013-2014 CRDC data throughout the Summer and Fall of 2016, and perhaps new guidance as well.

However, we believe that school districts should not hesitate to examine their policies and practices in the key areas on OCR’s radar to ensure that they are in compliance with all of the civil rights laws that OCR enforces to remedy and prevent discrimination on the basis of certain characteristics, including race, color or national origin (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), sex (Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972), and disability (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973).

In particular, OCR’s enforcement has been especially vigilant in the area of racial discrimination in the use of exclusionary student discipline.  When its 2011-2012 CRDC data was released in 2014, OCR issued a packet of guidance materials, including several specific policy recommendations, to help educators ensure that students were not discriminatorily subjected to suspension and expulsion from school.  OCR specifically cautioned that it considers significant and unexplained statistical disparities in student discipline outcomes by race to constitute an “important indicator” of potential civil rights violations.

Since the 2013-2014 CRDC data shows no significant progress in closing the racial divide in student discipline outcomes, we anticipate that OCR will vigorously pursue its investigation and enforcement activity in this area going forward.

Should you have any specific civil rights compliance questions regarding your school district’s policies and practices, please contact an AALRR office.

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