A bill that would prohibit Connecticut from collecting student data broken down by specific ethnic groups, a process known as data disaggregation, under certain conditions is currently being considered in the state’s legislature.
The proposed law, known as SB 359, calls for prohibiting the collection of that student data unless required by federal law or done uniformly across the entire student population.
“I encourage that there are merits to data disaggregation, to alleviate achievement gaps, healthcare concerns and trends,” state Sen. Tony Hwang, a Republican, said in an interview. “But nonetheless, if you’re going to do that, apply that in a uniform basis. I think that’s the only fair way to approach it.”
Data disaggregation has emerged as a hot-button issue for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) in recent years.
While supporters argue that it helps reveal disparities in education and healthcare that otherwise would go unnoticed within the diverse AAPI community, opponents claim it needlessly divides ethnicities and could be used for other purposes like limiting admission to elite colleges.
Hwang said he believes the Connecticut bill is the first of its kind to disallow disaggregation unless it is applied to all racial and ethnic groups as opposed to just Asian American and Pacific Islanders.
Connecticut currently disaggregates data only for federally required demographic groups, according to testimony submitted by Dianna Wentzell, commissioner of the state’s Department of Education.
The U.S. Department of Education lists those categories as American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, black or African American, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, white, and two or more races.
Wentzell noted in her testimony that while Connecticut collects information for federal grant purposes about whether a student is an immigrant, it does not collect information about national origin for immigrant students.
While a March 8 hearing on SB 359 attracted its share of data disaggregation critics, opponents of the Connecticut bill also made themselves heard.
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Among them is the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), a national civil rights organization originally founded in 1979 to aid refugees from Southeast Asia.
“Smaller ethnic groups like Southeast Asian Americans, who face high poverty rates and low education attainment rates, are rendered invisible when data is not broken down by ethnic group,” Quyen Dinh, the organization’s executive director, said in her written testimony.
SEARAC estimated there were 16,000 Southeast Asians living in the state in its testimony. Around 5 percent of Connecticut’s estimated population of 3.6 million identifies as Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, according to the U.S. Census.
Citing figures from the Census Bureau’s 2015 and 2016 American Community Survey, SEARAC said that while 14 percent of all Asian-American adults have less than a high school diploma, that percentage for certain Southeast Asian ethnic groups was even higher.
According to Census Bureau estimates, approximately 32 percent of Vietnamese Americans, 38 percent of Cambodian Americans, and 27 percent of Laotian Americans do not have a high school degree or equivalent certificate.
But this data, Dinh added, is only available through the U.S. Census for adults over the age of 25.
“Collecting data by ethnicity allows our students to be seen at the K-12 level so that interventions by policy makers and educators can be tailored to stop these inequities from growing,” she said.
Critics of data disaggregation have said they worry that the data collected could be used for racial profiling.
“Though we are proud to carry our heritage, at the government and policy level, every citizen shall be treated equally as American,” Lin Yang, a Connecticut mother of two, said in written testimony. “Ethnicity profiling in name of data collection always leads to discrimination even with the best intention.”
While Wentzell, the education comissioner, said in her testimony that Connecticut is not considering collecting disaggregated data at this time, some lawmakers don’t want to take any chances.
To that end, SB 359 is different in that it aims to preempt any attempt in Connecticut to single out the AAPI community by collecting disaggregated data only on them, instead of across all racial and ethnic groups, according to Hwang, the state senator.
The Connecticut bill comes less than a year after neighboring Rhode Island enacted a law that requires data on public school students of Asian descent to be separated by ethnicity.
Rhode Island joined Washington and Minnesota as states that have passed laws requiring data disaggregation on education. California mandates it for the Department of Public Health.
Massachusetts and New York have also introduced bills that would require such data be collected.
Meanwhile, Connecticut lawmakers are considering another bill aimed at uniform data collection in an effort to reduce disparities in the healthcare system. Among other things, it calls for expanding race and ethnic categories of Asians, Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians, African Americans and Hispanics to include subgroups present in the state.
A public hearing on that proposed legislation is scheduled for Friday.
Some of the testimonies on SB 359 expressed fear that data disaggregation leads to Asian American and Pacific Islander kids being labeled as perpetual foreigners and to discrimination.
Some also likened it to an “Asian registry,” a term that Dinh, the SEARAC executive director, said is used to scare people into believing data collection “is far more manipulative and coercive than it actually is.”
Amid a federal lawsuit alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants, concerns have also been raised that disaggregated data could be used in admission decisions for elite colleges and universities — a claim that disaggregation proponents dismiss as unfounded.
As of Friday, the bill that Hwang helped raise was still with the Joint Committee on Education.
Dinh said in an interview that what concerns her most about the bill is that it creates “institutionalized racism to further this model minority myth.”
“By preempting any sort of progress from happening to us, it’s just a further attempt in creating more barriers to revealing the true needs within our Asian-American community,” she said.
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