Missing Data: no accountability

For decades, I have used data to point out genuine problems to anyone who will listen: the public, legislators, the media and other policy makers. Using data can often help accomplish real systems change. That is why it is critical for the public to have access to meaningful data. Without that data, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to hold wrongdoers accountable.

Yesterday, I filed discrimination complaints against the Ashland School District on behalf of my clients who are members of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe since the district has refused to respond to our efforts to resolve my clients’ complaint that their children were singled out for isolation during the COVID pandemic when many non-Native students and staff were not isolated when exposed to COVID. Even exposure to the media did not get the school district to respond.

Since my clients understand that the school district’s discrimination against their children was part of a long history of discrimination against indigenous children, we spent the past few months gathering significant further evidence of what in legal terms is known as a “pattern and practice” of discrimination. We filed the complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and the State of Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) since it is illegal for school districts to discriminate on the basis of race and national origin under both state and federal law.

In order to demonstrate this pattern and practice of discrimination, my clients and I spent the past few months collecting evidence of the Ashland School District’s discrimination against indigenous children. The effort was well worth it and although many indigenous people are wary of publicly accusing white run institutions of discrimination for fear of retaliation, we were able to get three strong statements: two from indigenous women demonstrating both prior and current anti-Native American discrimination which has occurred and is still occurring in the school district, and one from a former Ashland school nurse who resigned a few months ago in disgust and provided specific instances of differential treatment of COVID by the district between white students and staff and Native American students.

In addition, the complaint includes the academic results of this history of discrimination. Specifically, the 2018-19 Ashland School District report card produced by the State of Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) represents the most recent data available. That is because 2019 Wisconsin Act 185 prohibits the release of school and district accountability report cards in the 2020-21 school year. As a result, DPI’s Office of Educational Accountability (OEA) will not issue school or district report cards for 2019-20.

Per the report, at that time, Native American students made up 20.1% of the student population in the Ashland School District. The academic data for these students reveals a long history of inadequate education and therefore discriminatory failure to educate these students. During the 2018-19 school year, among the key points demonstrating this problem are:

  • While 38.4% of white students were proficient or advanced in English Language Arts, only 16.4% of Native American students scored at those levels. Even more troubling is that 46.5% of Native American students scored below basic.
  • While 36.8% of white students were proficient or advanced in Mathematics, only 14.1% of Native American students scored at those levels. Even more troubling is that 54.6% of Native American students scored below basic.
  • While the 4-year graduation rate was 97.8% for white students, it was only 84.4% for Native American students. This gap worsens when examining the 6-year rate which was 97.8% for white students and only 79.3% for Native American students.
  • While the one-year absenteeism rate for white students was 9.3%, it was 15.1% for Native American students.
  • While the one-year dropout rate was 0.7% for white students, it was 5.1% for Native American students.

My clients and I believe that the Ashland School District also has a long history of disproportionately suspending and expelling Native American students when compared to non-Native students. But when I wanted to add that data to the complaint, data which for many years was publicly available, I discovered that DPI no longer publicly reports discipline data for each school district disaggregated by race. Even more troubling is that when I requested that data from DPI, I received an auto-response e-mail that said,

Do not reply to this email receipt. The reply-to email address is not monitored. Your DPI Non-Confidential Data Request was submitted on Monday, July 12, 2021 – 10:39 am. Non-Confidential data requests are reviewed on the first Monday of each month.”

While I have asked both DPI and OCR to obtain this data and include it in my clients’ complaint, the absence of easily available public data on such an important issue should trouble anyone looking to hold school districts accountable for fueling the schools to prison pipeline with minority students. It is bad enough that the most recent academic data available is from 3 school years ago, but the complete absence of discipline data, which was once easily obtainable on DPI’s website is a problem that goes far beyond my clients’ complaint.

As I am unaware of any legal change which prohibits DPI from publishing this discipline data on its website, I am hopeful that with the inauguration of a new State Superintendent, that Jill Underly will direct her agency to put this critical data back up on DPI’s website for all to see and hold school districts accountable.

UPDATE: On July 23rd, I received an e-mail from DPI indicating that the data I seek is on the WISEdash Public Portal under the student engagement tab. While I am pleased to have the data, I urge DPI to modify its website so that school discipline data can be easily found. I certainly would not have dreamed that the place to find out how many students were suspended and expelled would be found under a “student engagement” tab.

For those interested in the discrimination aspect of this data, it further supports my clients’ complaint of a pattern and practice of discrimination against Native Americans by the Ashland School District. Specifically, while only 1.6% of white students were suspended in 2018-19 (the last year for which data is available), over 4x that percentage, or 6.8% of Native American students were suspended that year. Moreover, 5.6% of students who are categorized as coming from two or more races were suspended that year. One can assume that at least some of those students were at least partially of Native American heritage given the demographics in Ashland where 20% of the students are Native American.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact me,  Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting my web site: Systems Change Consulting.

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