About 60 years ago, in Virginia’s New Kent County, under a freedom-of-choice plan, only 115 Black students chose to attend a local high school where students were mostly white. About 85 percent of Black students chose to go to another school that no whites attended. This led to a landmark lawsuit filed by Charles C. Green in 1965. Green contended that such freedom-of-choice plans undermined the heart of the Supreme Court’s repudiation of “separate but equal” segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the “freedom-of-choice” provision in the Virginia school board’s desegregation plan was unacceptable. This is the Green Decision of 1968. According to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, by 1968, “the U.S. Supreme Court had lost patience with the slow pace of school integration,” and it shifted its concern to ensure racial balance in schools.

The Green Decision resulted in factors that school boards should consider when determining policies about desegregation and education equity. These factors included the ratio of Black to white students and faculty and absolute equality in facilities, transportation, and extracurricular activities. In the same year, the U.S. Department of Education started to collect data biennially on key education and civil rights issues in the U.S. public schools.

The data was originally collected through the Elementary and Secondary School Survey (E&S Survey). In 2004, it was renamed the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). Today, the CRDC data include more than 10 equity indicators describing students’ learning environments. With the strong focus on civil rights, the CRDC has become equity-driven data.

Discrimination complaints

Every year, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) receives thousands of complaints about discrimination. The OCR is charged with protecting fundamental rights to equal educational opportunity. It does this by investigating complaints alleging discrimination, initiating proactive compliance reviews to focus on particularly acute problems, and providing policy guidance and technical assistance.

During 1990, the OCR reported that it had received 3,382 discrimination cases, the highest number in the agency’s history. It immediately announced the National Enforcement Strategy focusing the agency’s available resources on high-priority educational equity issues. By contrast, in 2017 and 2018, the total number of complaints that the OCR received reached 25,277, almost seven times more than in 1990. On average, the OCR received 12,638 complaints per year and resolved 15,935 complaints each year.

Equity-driven data 

To fulfill its responsibilities, the OCR relies on the CRDC data it receives from public school districts. The legal grounds for the OCR to collect civil rights data comprise Title VI (Civil Rights Act of 1964), Title IX (Education Amendments of 1972), and Section 504, Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The data collected include information on demographics and educational opportunities for students of different groups. As equity-driven data, the CRDC is used to ensure that public schools and districts, as recipients of federal financial assistance, do not discriminate based on race, color, national origin, gender, or disability.

Initially, the OCR collected civil rights data to help the Education Department enforce relevant federal laws and monitor school systems with potential problems. The original focus of the CRDC was to identify racially dual systems with an emphasis on the rural South. Today, the scope of the data collection has broadened to include discrimination based on gender or disabilities, and to address problems such as discriminatory discipline practices and unequal student assignments within schools.

As a complete data source, the CRDC also serves other Education Department offices and other federal agencies, policymakers and researchers, educators and school officials, parents and students, and the public who seek data on student equity and opportunity. The data released in 2020 covered the information of 17,604 school districts, 97,632 schools, and 50.9 million students. The equity indicators in the CRDC include math and science courses, advanced placement, student retention, harassment or bullying, and discipline.

Equity-driven policies  

Data can be a powerful tool. Equity-driven data often lead to equity-driven education policies. For example, for a long time, the CRDC data have shown prevalent chronic absenteeism in public schools. In 2015-16, about one out of every six students missed three weeks or more of school in a school year. Compared with their white peers, American Indian and Pacific Islander students are over 50 percent more likely to miss three weeks of school or more, Black students are 40 percent more likely, and Hispanic students 17 percent more likely. To mitigate this disparity, many states added chronic student absenteeism as an equity indicator to their accountability formulas required by the federal education law.

According to the just-released 2020 OCR Annual Report, the federal government still emphasizes, even amid the pandemic, the significance of enforcing civil rights laws and protecting the right of every student to learn in an environment that is safe and free from discrimination, whether that learning takes place in the classroom or online.

As an education data scientist at the Intercultural Development Research Association remarks, “Creating equitable access to educational opportunities is a calculated task often requiring specialized tools.” The CRDC is one of such tools.

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