Expansive Survey of America's Public Schools Reveals Troubling Racial Disparities

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Expansive Survey of America's Public Schools Reveals Troubling Racial Disparities

Lack of Access to Pre-School, Greater Suspensions Cited

March 21, 2014

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released today the first comprehensive look at civil rights data from every public school in the country in nearly 15 years.

The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) from the 2011-12 school year was announced by U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

This is the first time since 2000 that the Department has compiled data from all 97,000 of the nation's public schools and its 16,500 school districts—representing 49 million students. And for the first time ever, state-, district- and school-level information is accessible to the public in a searchable online database at crdc.ed.gov.

"This data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places that are delivering on the promise of an equal education for every child and places where the largest gaps remain. In all, it is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. "As the President's education budget reflects in every element—from preschool funds to Pell Grants to Title I to special education funds—this administration is committed to ensuring equity of opportunity for all."

"This critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well-documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "Every data point represents a life impacted and a future potentially diverted or derailed. This Administration is moving aggressively to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in order to ensure that all of our young people have equal educational opportunities."

The federal government has collected civil rights data about schools since 1968, but the Obama Administration revamped the CRDC to include key information on preschool student and school discipline tactics. The data measures whether all students have equal educational opportunity and provides critical information to the Department on enforcing federal civil rights laws.

CRDC data helps inform policy and regulatory work by the federal government. For example, the Departments of Education and Justice recently released guidelines to school districts on zero-tolerance policies and discipline tactics, a powerful example of the federal government using data to take action to bolster outcomes and reduce disparities for minority students.

The data released today reveals particular concern around discipline for our nation's young men and boys of color, who are disproportionately affected by suspensions and zero-tolerance policies in schools. Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again. They are also more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.

The 2011-2012 release shows that access to preschool programs is not a reality for much of the country. In addition, students of color are suspended more often than white students, and black and Latino students are significantly more likely to have teachers with less experience who aren't paid as much as their colleagues in other schools.

The 2011-12 school year was the first time the CRDC collected data on preschool discipline and the first year that all public schools reported data separately for Native-Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders. As a result, the CRDC shows that racial disparities in discipline begin in the early years of schooling: Native-Hawaiian/Pacific Islander kindergarten students are held back a year at nearly twice the rate of white kindergarten students.

"This rich information allows us to identify gaps and cases of discrimination to partner with states and districts to ensure equal access to educational opportunities," said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights. "From Native American tribal nations to inner city barrios, all of our children deserve a high quality education."

Among the key findings:

  • Access to preschool. About 40% of public school districts do not offer preschool, and where it is available, it is mostly part-day only. Of the school districts that operate public preschool programs, barely half are available to all students within the district.

  • Suspension of preschool children. Black students represent 18% of preschool enrollment but 42% of students suspended once, and 48% of the students suspended more than once.

  • Access to advanced courses. Eighty-one percent (81%) of Asian-American high school students and 71% of white high school students attend high schools where the full range of math and science courses are offered (Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics). However, less than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan high school students have access to the full range of math and science courses in their high school. Black students (57%), Latino students (67%), students with disabilities (63%), and English language learner students (65%) also have less access to the full range of courses.

  • Access to college counselors. Nationwide, one in five high schools lacks a school counselor; in Florida and Minnesota, more than two in five students lack access to a school counselor.

  • Retention of English learners in high school. English learners make up 5% of high school enrollment but 11% of high school students held back each year.

As CRDC data indicates the opportunity gap among Americans hurts life-transforming opportunities for children that strengthen and build a thriving middle class. To address these issues, as part of his budget request, President Obama proposed a new initiative called Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity (RTT-Opportunity), which would create incentives for states and school districts to drive comprehensive change in how states and districts identify and close opportunity and achievement gaps. Grantees would enhance data systems to sharpen the focus on the greatest disparities and invest in strong teachers and leaders in high-need schools.

State-, district- and school-level data may be viewed at the CRDC website at crdc.ed.gov. For more information on the work of the Office for Civil Rights, click here.