SEATTLE - Washington school districts are struggling with a new federal requirement to gather more specific information on the ethnicity of their students, a policy that encourages officials to guess when parents don't supply race information.
Federal Way Superintendent Tom Murphy calls the new policy for the 2010-11 school year bizarre.
For years, parents have been asked to identify the race and ethnicity of their children, but now the federal government has changed the rules, eliminating the choices of "unknown," "multiracial," or "declined to answer."
School districts across the state have called the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to complain about the policy or to ask for guidance and training, said agency spokesman Nate Olson.
The forms are more specific now, with dozens more choices if a child is Latino or Asian. Parents may check as many boxes as they want if a child is multiracial.
The state of Washington has added to the mix by asking American Indian parents to specify which tribe they are from, so the form in this state has nearly 70 ethnic choices.
Black and white non-Hispanic families are not asked to get specific about their ethnic heritage.
Schools are now required to attempt to fill in the blanks when families don't return forms asking for information.
"We cannot imagine any staff development approach or any conversation with our employees that would sufficiently prepare them to simply make assumptions and guesses about a student's race and ethnicity," Federal Way's Murphy wrote in a letter to OSPI earlier this spring.
Murphy asked in his letter if someone at OSPI or the U.S. Department of Education could provide a rubric that would help his staff visually recognize the difference between a Hmong and a Vietnamese student, or between a Fijian and a Samoan, or a Lummi and a Makah Indian.
In her response to Murphy, Robin Munson, OSPI's director of student information, said school staff would not be expected to visually make these distinctions and should feel free to use the categories of "other Asian," "other Pacific Islander" and "other American Indian."
She noted that OSPI has provided training materials and additional guidance to help with observer identification and that asking kids what they are is preferable to guessing.
"It's just beyond weird," Murphy said this week. "Sometimes you know, enough is enough. This is so over the top."
Murphy, who was adopted as a baby and has no clue to his own ethnic background, uses himself as an example of how difficult the policy is to execute.
"If I had children in school or for my grandchildren, I suppose they're checking white. I'm not sure they shouldn't be checking Hispanic," said Murphy, who is about two weeks from retirement.
Besides Federal Way, the Okanogan School District also has written a letter to OSPI protesting the new form and the instructions about guessing a student's ethnic background. OSPI officials have said school districts won't be punished for not supplying complete information about their students.
OSPI's Olson said the reason behind the change is to help the government target instruction to individual students, who may have been lost in the more general categories. He said the new forms align better with the U.S. Census.
Although questions are coming in from school districts around the state, Olson wouldn't categorize most of the calls as complaints.
"A lot of them are questions about how to complete the forms rather than philosophical differences," he said. "Most are fine after they've been walked through the process."