Over-suspending disruptive kids, which denies them learning time and contributes to the dropout rate.
Under-suspending disruptive kids, which undermines the education of well-behaved kids and, in theory, makes schools less safe.
Answer: No one has any idea. But that hasn’t stop some conservatives from running a campaign to get rid of federal guidance urging schools to reduce suspensions in the wake of national data showing that Black students are three times
more likely to be suspended than White kids. Students with disabilities are also disproportionately suspended. Sadly, the federal data includes preschool, where Black toddlers are much more frequently sent home from school for misbehaving than White toddlers. In 2014, the Obama administration
issued guidance encouraging school districts to reform disciplinary practices to reduce the “disparate impact” on kids of color and students with disabilities. In response,
some predicted it would trigger a tidal wave of investigations, school districts would simply stop suspending, and chaos would follow. As the term implies, “guidance” is not a requirement but rather a suggestion, though it carries with it the possibility of federal intervention for civil rights violations. It is a common communications tool used by federal agencies to help states and localities figure out how to implement federal laws, which are often vague and even contradictory. Nevertheless, small-government conservatives hate guidance when it applies to education, which they see as strictly a local responsibility. Many of them wish the Department of Education ceased to exist.
We Have Decades of Evidence That Should Calm Conservatives’ Nerves
Finally, we know that, in response to complaints, the federal government has been investigating school districts for unfair discipline practices for decades. It’s a standard function of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education. But here’s one other very important thing we know—and it comes directly from the former assistant secretary for OCR. The DOE has never launched an investigation based on “disparate impact.” Conservative worries of heavy-handed federal lawyers launching investigations willy-nilly are entirely unfounded. It did not happen. Nevertheless, this absence of evidence of schools in chaos or of lawyers run amok has not deterred them in their determination to roll back the Obama guidance. Instead, they cobbled together
school climate surveys,
random anecdotes and
data-driven guesswork to argue that “evidence” shows
these policies cause harm and put kids at risk. Their argument rests on the divisive assertion that poor kids of color have demonstrably worse behavior than middle-class White kids and therefore higher suspension rates are not only justified but are a moral necessity. Like the protagonists in “The Blues Brothers,” they believe they are on a mission from God and are quick to downplay alternate theories for the disparity like
bias among White teachers and administrators. The negative reaction from progressives and people of color was swift—ranging from outright accusations of racism to reasoned arguments about higher levels of trauma facing low-income kids of color and students with special needs. Progressive education reformers argue for additional counseling services and more training for teachers as well as a greater focus on student engagement; many kids act out in class simply because they are bored. Given the divide, let’s stipulate that our common goal should be
neither zero tolerance nor zero discipline but as few suspensions as possible without compromising student safety or sacrificing student learning. We can also agree that we can’t have a productive debate if we aren’t honest about what we know and don’t know—and the one thing we absolutely know is existing discipline policies disproportionately hurt students of color. The discipline issue plays out every day in schools across America and in conversations like
this one in Chicago, where parents, teachers and students of color are serious about both discipline and learning. Ideologues more concerned with limiting the federal role than with protecting students should get out of their bubble and spend more time listening to them.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with