The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (“LDF”) applauds the U.S. Department of Education on the release of its most recent “Civil Rights Data Collection”  and is deeply alarmed by the data therein.

Compared to prior data releases, this year’s data collection for the 2009-2010 school year reflects an expanded set of information, including factors such as school-based arrests, referrals to law enforcement and students receiving multiple suspensions.  LDF and other civil rights and education advocates have urged inclusion of these reporting categories and have also asked the Department of Education to collect these data annually from all schools, including all charter schools that receive federal funds.

The data confirms what many civil rights and education advocates have feared.  Stark racial disparities across various indicators are hampering educational access and opportunity.    According to the Department of Education, black students are more than three-and-a-half times as likely to be suspended or expelled compared to their white peers.  Black and Hispanic students are far more likely than white students to be forced to repeat a grade, especially in the elementary and middle grades.  And fewer schools with high concentrations of minority students had access to either advanced curriculum or reasonably experienced teachers who can prepare them to compete in today’s global economy. 

This data release reflects a continuing trend of racial disparities in education, particularly with respect to school discipline. 

Each year, more and more students are suspended and expelled from schools, and some are even arrested on campus for non-violent conduct.  These trends persist despite a wealth of evidence on the harms of exclusionary discipline by respected institutions such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the American Bar Association and the Council of State Governments.  Research by these groups and others has shown that exclusionary discipline policies undermine students’ academic achievement and also lead to racial disparities in disciplinary and dropout rates, and academic achievement. 

“We cannot suspend, expel and arrest our way out of our nation’s education problems.  In fact, relying upon exclusionary discipline policies actually fuels academic failure and drives achievement gaps.  Indeed, if we are to ever fulfill the promise of quality, inclusive education heralded in Brown v. Board of Education, we must equalize resources and address the policies and practices that are pushing young people out of school,” said John Payton, LDF’s President and Director-Counsel.

 “We hope this data serves as a clear call to action for school districts and states with significant racial disparities in areas such as school discipline and resource allocation.  They should understand that inexplicable racial disparities can be a violation of federal law, whether intentional or not.  And this is especially true when a state or school district implements discipline policies that are not supported by sound educational practices,” said Damon Hewitt, Director of LDF’s Education Practice Group.

LDF attorney Matt Cregor added, “States and school districts should re-assess and revise their approaches to resource allocation and discipline, as so many of their peers around the nation have already done.  And the Department of Education must not only provide guidance to all school districts and states regarding both their legal obligations and alternatives, but also engage in vigorous enforcement under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other civil rights laws that forbid these types of racial disparities.

LDF urges the Department of Education to consider the disparities revealed in the Civil Rights Data Collection when determining both whether to honor states’ requests for waivers from the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act and whether to award discretionary grants to states and districts under its competitive grant programs.  Furthermore, in their efforts to replace the No Child Left Behind Act with a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress must hold schools, school districts and states accountable for these types of disparities and also provide support to assist them in addressing high disciplinary rates and disparities, as well as other inequities.