A New Lens: Early Childhood Data from the Office of Civil Rights

By Stephanie Schmit

The Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) recently made an important contribution to the broader discussion of educational equity by releasing long-unavailable district- and state-level data highlighting racial and ethnic disparities in access to quality education and the treatment of students. A key section of the data set released focuses on public early childhood education (ECE), revealing a slice of data not often seen that describes the diversity of children and their varied experiences in public ECE classrooms. The data span a wide range of areas, from accessibility of and eligibility for preschool, to discipline practices and kindergarten retention.

The data reveal that access to public ECE classrooms varies by state and district. For example:

  • Over half of the school districts that operate public preschool allow all students in the district to enroll.
  • 57 percent of school districts that operate public preschool offer only part-day services.
  • Hawaii, Tennessee, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky have the highest percentage of school districts offering preschool programs (ranging from 94-100 percent).
  • Texas, Illinois, Florida, California, and Oregon have the highest percentage of English language learners (ranging from 15-36 percent) in their public preschools.

Even in areas where children have access to ECE, however, the data show that children may face inequitable treatment and outcomes. For example:

  • While black children make up 18 percent of all preschoolers nationally, 60 percent of the children suspended from preschool more than once are black.
  • Native-Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islanders, American Indian, and Native Alaskan kindergarten students are held back a year at nearly twice the rates of white kindergarten students.

While the data describe an important piece of the early childhood system, it is only a piece. Nationally, the early childhood education system includes private and publicly funded community-based schools, child care, and Head Start settings. That mixed delivery system is critical to meeting the varying needs of families, and its complexity makes looking at the entirety of the early education system difficult due to various funding streams and data reporting requirements. What we do know is that children who are eligible for various early education programs are not all served. For example, only 42 percent of eligible Head Start children are currently being served.

The OCR data, coupled with many other data sets, show us that we must pay attention to the policies governing early childhood education practices to ensure all children receive a quality education regardless of race or ethnicity. As our country becomes more diverse, it is more important than ever to act quickly and purposefully to improve the educational experiences for all children and families.

For analysis on the full OCR dataset, see “Education as a Civil Right: We Have a Long Way to Go.”