Students, along with minority and education advocates, are pushing for state and federal legislation to separate K-12 student racial and ethnic demographic data. This is an effort to give minority students a greater sense of identity within census data collection. The groups also want to identify gaps within minority demographics traditionally swallowed by broad racial categories such as “Asian.”
Students and advocacy organizations are lobbying Olympia to pass House Bill (HB) 1541, which would require separation, or disaggregation, of student data. It would also allocate funding for cultural competency training for public school educators and re-engagement programs for students who, for various reasons, could be suspended and expelled.
Beginning in the 2017-2018 school year, school districts would have to submit this data to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to be cataloged and made available to the public. The bill also calls for OSPI to collect disaggregated data on students who are suspended or expelled to highlight potential racial and ethnic disparities.
“It’s taking a holistic approach on how we can make sure our students are being counted and not falling through the cracks,” said Tony Vu, a recent University of Washington (UW) graduate and organizer with Southeast Asian Education Coalition
Vu said OSPI already collects breakdowns for census sub-groups sought by HB 1451 and a similar federal bill, called the All Students Count Act. OSPI doesn’t make the data available to the public.
Vu estimated the legislation would cost around $69 million a year to enact.
Rita Pin Ahrens, a policy director at the Washington D.C. Southeast Asia Action Resource Center, which supports the federal bill, said that nuance between ethnic groups isn’t reflected within traditional racial categories.
“When you look at the Asian-American outcomes for Southeast Asian-American students, they tend to be much lower than other Asian-American groups,” said Ahrens. “A lot of our students come from families who fled the Vietnam War.” She added many of those families tend to be lower income and have limited English proficiency.
The local campaign was galvanized in 2008 after the publication of a hard-hitting study by UW researchers on the educational achievement gap among Asian-American subgroups.
The study found 67 percent of Washington’s Asian Americans are foreign-born and that 40 percent have limited English proficiency. In Seattle, 22 percent of students in public schools are Asian American. The study highlighted notable differences among Asian ethnic groups. It found that Southeast Asian students had the highest dropout rates and 46 percent of these students weren’t living with both parents. In comparison, 16 percent of Chinese-American students weren’t in two-parent households.
Seattle is home to a diverse range of Southeast Asian, African and other racial communities, which are mostly concentrated in South Seattle. Census data from 2011 shows disparities in median income: White residents are the highest, Asian residents are second highest, Pacific Islanders third, and black and Native American residents coming in second-to-last and last, respectively.
The education achievement gap hews closely to lines of wealth inequities.
Both Vu and Ahrens say that the campaign is also about giving minority students a sense of identity that isn’t reflected in the current limited racial and ethnic categories.
“A lot of the students that I’ve talked to [see it as] a sense of identity, like ‘I now have a check box. I’m not just multi-racial’ or ‘I’m not just Asian.’ They can take cultural pride in that,” said Vu.
A Tumblr page for the federal bill, All Students Count, has been created, and it features information about the campaign along with photographs of thousands of students nationwide holding up signs with their assigned racial demographic versus how they actually identify ethnically.
So far the federal bill, which has met opposition from House Republicans, has never made it out of committee, but supporters say they still want to find a Republican to sponsor the bill as an amendment.
In Olympia, HB 1541 is currently hung up in the appropriations committee, where lawmakers are hashing out whether and how to pay for the bill.
“While [HB 1451] does seem to cost a lot right now, it will pay off in the long run when we see our students succeed,” said Vu. “And that’s what we want to see.”