When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced last week that the Trump administration would revisit its predecessor’s “guidance” on adjudicating accusations of campus sexual assault, she added that “the era of ‘rule by letter’ is over.” Well, not quite. A second instance of the Education Department’s overreach under President Obama, this one involving discipline in public schools, remains firmly in place.
In 2012 the Education Department released a study showing that black students were three times as likely to be suspended and expelled as their white counterparts. Two years later, the department issued a “Dear Colleague” letter warning school districts to address this racial imbalance, or else. The letter said that even if a disciplinary policy “is neutral on its face—meaning that the policy itself does not mention race—and is administered in an evenhanded manner” the district still could face a federal civil-rights investigation if the policy “has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.”
The threat worked. Fending off charges of discrimination can be expensive and embarrassing, so spooked school districts chose instead to discipline fewer students in deference to Washington. The Obama guidance didn’t start the trend—suspensions were down nearly 20% between 2011 and 2014—but the letter almost certainly hastened it. The effects are being felt in schools across the country, leaving black and Hispanic students, the policy’s theoretical beneficiaries, worse off.
After the Los Angeles school district, where more than 82% of students are Latino or black, ended suspensions for nonviolent offenses, the district reported that the number of students who said they felt safe in school dropped to 60% from 72%. When Chicago curbed suspensions, students and teachers felt the increased disorder. And following New York City’s reforms making it more difficult to keep disruptive kids out of the classroom, the schools that showed increased fighting, gang activity and drug use tended to be those with the highest percentages of minority students.
Somehow racial balance in the rates of suspension and expulsion has become more important than school safety. As Max Eden, my colleague at the Manhattan Institute, wrote in a March report, these policies turn the focus toward the well-being of the bullies rather than their victims. “Advocates of discipline reform often say that they are concerned that a suspension may have negative effects on the student being disciplined,” Mr. Eden wrote. “They are largely unconcerned about the potential of discipline reform to increase classroom disruption and schoolhouse disorder—and the harmful consequences of that disorder for well-behaved and engaged students.” When you diminish a teacher’s and a principal’s authority to discipline students, you undermine their ability to do their job. Disorder only begets more disorder; students who misbehave and face no consequences soon have imitators.
Yet civil-rights activists, liberal academics, policy makers and others calling for fewer suspensions—come what may—insist that what explains imbalances in school discipline is racism, not varying rates of misbehavior. Never mind that these disparities persist in schools with black and Hispanic principals, teachers and administrators, who would have no reason to single out minorities for punishment unless the behavior warranted it. Arne Duncan, the education secretary under Mr. Obama when the “Dear Colleague” letter was issued, said in 2014 that racially uneven discipline is “not caused by differences in children” and that “it is adult behavior that needs to change.”
Opponents of suspension also claim that it harms children down the road. A suspended student, for example, is more likely to drop out of school and be incarcerated as an adult. But the “school-to-prison pipeline” theory, which has been advocated by activists with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, among others, has come under increasing scrutiny. There’s plenty of evidence that someone who gets suspended is more likely to drop out of school, but there’s little evidence that the suspension caused the dropping out. In fact, a March paper posted by the University of Arkansas found that students who had been suspended were doing better in math and reading after one year. Suspensions were correlated with improved academic outcomes—the opposite of the chain of negative effects that opponents predicted.
That means the 2014 guidance, which is wreaking havoc on schools, was justified with what Mr. Eden described to me as “old and limited evidence,” now called into question by “new and more robust evidence.” Mrs. DeVos can’t fix this mess soon enough.
Appeared in the September 13, 2017, print edition.