Civil Rights Data Collection Must Improve for Equity in Education

By Phoebe Dias

In the last two months, students across the country have returned to school. While they should be returning to positive and healthy educational environments that will prepare them for a successful future, this is not the reality for far too many students.

Students with disabilities will face higher rates of expulsion and suspension. Students of color will be subject to higher rates of arrest and law enforcement referrals. LGBTQ students will experience bullying, harassment, and other forms of discrimination at higher rates than their non-LGBTQ peers. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened these disparities and increased challenges for students of all backgrounds. Given these and other inequities that exist in education, it is crucial that the civil rights of students be a top priority for education decision makers. 

In order to identify and remedy these differing experiences, the civil and human rights community has relied on the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) since the program began in 1968. The CRDC is vitally important for making informed, data-driven decisions to ensure that every student has equal educational access and opportunity. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has the responsibility to ensure compliance with federal civil rights law and take action in cases of unequal educational opportunity. Robust and accurate data are critical to understanding where discrimination is taking place. In many cases, sufficient data on educational equity do not exist.

The Trump administration attacked the CRDC through several rollbacks to the scope, frequency, and public accessibility of the data. The Department of Education cut many critical questions, including those about preschool students who received out-of-school suspension(s) disaggregated by several demographic characteristics and the availability of preschool to students of all backgrounds. Without these data, it would be impossible to evaluate the effectiveness of many programs or identify places where policy changes are necessary. President Biden’s American Families Plan proposed “free, high-quality, accessible, and inclusive preschool,” but without granular data on the availability of preschool to all students, including students with disabilities, students in Title I schools, and students from low-income families, it would be much more challenging to measure compliance with accessibility and inclusivity. Promises about access to education are meaningless without implementation and enforcement — and data are central to that process.

The Biden administration has prioritized protecting students from sex-based discrimination, which includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) or pregnancy and parenting status. Recently proposed Title IX regulations would clarify that the law does protect students from discrimination based on these characteristics, and it will be incredibly important to have additional disaggregated data that show how these students are and are not experiencing discrimination. The Leadership Conference and its allies have been asking the department to expand the disaggregation of data about the bases on which students are subjected to bullying and harassment, and the form of harassment, as well as other improvements to the collection.

The department during the previous administration also delayed the scheduled 2019-2020 CRDC collection until 2020-2021 and did not finalize the survey instrument until more than halfway through the school year. Especially given the many changes to education access caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unacceptable for data collection to occur a year and a half too late. By delaying the survey, data were not collected on the number of school nurses and counselors on staff, information that was crucial as schools made decisions about COVID-19. Besides losing critical pandemic-related information, these delays meant that students waited for solutions to issues that had yet to be identified through data analysis. After data collection, students and advocates are now forced to wait even longer, as the department did not make public the CRDC results for 2017-2018 until October 2020. Any evident gaps in education went unacknowledged for more than two years due to the Trump administration’s attacks on the CRDC.

The Biden administration must now look to not only reverse the damages done by the previous administration, but also go further by expanding the CRDC’s scope, frequency, and accessibility. In February, The Leadership Conference, along with many civil rights organizations, submitted specific recommendations for improved CRDC functions. The CRDC could better inform policy that ensures the educational access of all students by collecting and publishing more disaggregated data annually, rather than biennially. Civil rights enforcement requires that the Department of Education collect, disaggregate, and cross-tabulate data on sex, race and ethnicity, native language, socioeconomic status, English learner status, disability status, disability type, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or parenting status.

As the Biden administration continues to push for equity in education, it is critical to have data to inform and enforce these decisions. Quite simply, it is impossible to fix problems without truly understanding them. The Department of Education must equip itself to truly analyze equity in access through improved data collection. A more robust CRDC can allow for a better understanding of inequity in education so decision makers can finally remedy these issues that prevent students from receiving their education.

Phoebe Dias was a summer 2022 undergraduate intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

This blog is the fifth in the series ”Data Disaggregation Deconstructed,” which explores how data disaggregation in various policy areas can enhance equity. The series is based on The Leadership Conference Education Fund’s report “Information Nation: The Need for Improved Federal Civil Rights Data Collection.” The report urges the Biden administration to restore and expand the scope, frequency, and public accessibility of federal data collections in order to identify equity gaps and solutions to remedy them.