Obama’s Undisciplined School Discipline Reforms

Keeping kids safe at school should go hand in hand with ensuring high-quality academics. The U.S. Department of Education’s record on both fronts has been poor at best.

During the No Child Left Behind era of George W. Bush, parents were supposed to have an Unsafe School Choice Option. Partisan politics and perverse incentives combined to ensure that fewer than 50 schools nationwide ever met Byzantine definitions of an unsafe school each year—so kids most at risk stayed stuck.

Flash forward to the Obama Administration, and things aren’t much better. Under the recently announced Now Is the Time plan, the U.S. Department of Education is throwing some $70 million at schools nationwide, in the coming year alone, for stricter background checks for gun purchases, banning military-style assault weapons, and adding more counselors and resource officers, as well as mental health officials to intervene with troubled youth sooner. Essentially, more government social workers and fewer guns in the hands of law-abiding private citizens are supposed to help keep kids safe at school.

But the politics don’t stop there. In 2010, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced his plans to investigate school districts’ discipline policies through the lens of disparate impact theory. In a nutshell, because students from some minority backgrounds are, overall, disciplined at higher rates than non-minority students, schools or districts must be discriminating against students—regardless of the individual students’ actual behavior. (For a great review, see the Federalist Society’s analysis and background resources here.) As explained in a 2011 briefing report prepared by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights:

The Department’s policy...is that statistically disparate results create a presumption of discrimination that must be rebutted by the school or district with evidence that the school or district has a legitimate educational justification and that there are no equally effective alternative policies that would achieve the school’s educational goals. (p. 1)

What this disparate impact policy shift means is that once the U.S. Department of Education identifies disparate discipline rates based on Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), the burden of proof shifts to the school district or school to justify its disciplinary actions.

To be sure, government-run schools are not the beacons of equality they purport to be. In fact, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) reported that it handled a record-breaking number of complaints from 2009 through 2012 compared to any previous four-year period, nearly 29,000 (pp. 6-7). More than half of those complaints (54 percent) concerned students with disabilities. Research has long shown that minority and non-native speaking students are disproportionately identified as learning disabled. The OCR also reports that it handled a significant number of complaints in which minority students denied equal access to high-quality educational opportunities (pp. 26-28).

So it should come as no surprise that minority students—African-Americans in particular—are disciplined differently. According to the OCR:

African-American students represent 18 percent of students in the 2009–10 CRDC sample but 35 percent of students suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once, 39 percent of students expelled, and 36 percent of the students arrested on public-school grounds. Hispanic students are one-and-a-half times more likely to be expelled than their white counterparts. Additionally, in districts that showed at least one expulsion under zero-tolerance policies, African-Americans represent 19 percent of enrollment but 33 percent of the students expelled. ...

In fiscal years 2009 through 2012, OCR launched 20 proactive investigations in schools with significant racial disparities in discipline based on data from the most recent CRDC. Additionally, during the last four years, OCR received more than 1,250 complaints brought by parents, students or other concerned individuals about possible civil rights violations involving school discipline systems. (pp. 28-29)

But the “solutions” proposed by federal education bureaucrats simply perpetuate racial discrimination. As Investor’s Business Daily reports:

Minneapolis Public Schools have adopted racial quotas in discipline to settle an investigation by Obama’s diversity cops for alleged discrimination. So much for equal protection under the Constitution.

Ending a two-year probe by Education Department’s office for civil rights, Minneapolis has agreed to stop suspending black students for infractions that would still get whites suspended.

Every suspension of an African American must now be reviewed by the superintendent, according to the federal agreement.

Instead of being punished, unruly black kids will be put into “restorative talking circles,” where teachers will examine their own “cultural misunderstandings.”

White kids who act up won’t get off so easy. ...

“I and all of my staff will start to review all nonviolent suspensions of students of color—especially black boys—to understand why they’re being suspended so we can help intervene with teachers,” explained MPS Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, who is running the new “equity policy” through something called the Office of Black Male Student Achievement.

If you think that sounds a bit racist, you’re not alone. ...

But the Obama regime, which sees racism behind every corner, blames biased teachers and administrators for the disparity—even though Johnson is black.

Minneapolis is just the latest target of the regime’s war on school discipline. The Education Department has aggressively investigated several other major school districts across the country for what it thinks are too many suspensions of black students.

They too have “reformed” their discipline codes to get the race-baiting educrats off their backs and safeguard their federal funding.

Closer to home, several California school districts are already in the throes of the Obama Administration’s discipline “reforms” and are having to contend with the ensuing chaos. As IBD continues:

Take San Diego. Just weeks after adopting similar racial discipline quotas, San Diego public schools have witnessed an explosion of violent assaults.

At its premier charter school, Lincoln High, students report daily fights now, mostly involving black kids. In the past month, there have been several arrests, including one involving a butcher knife, according to local reports. Victims have been hauled off by ambulance.

This result mirrors spikes in student crime in Los Angeles after the school superintendent followed federal orders to reduce suspensions of African-Americans.

“Last week I was terrified and bullied by a fourth-grade student,” a teacher at an urban Los Angeles Unified School District school said. “The black student told me to ‘back off, bitch.’ I told him to go to the office and he said, ‘No, bitch, and you and no one can make me.'”

Complained another LAUSD teacher: “We now have a ‘restorative justice’ counselor, but we still have the same problems. Kids aren’t even suspended for fights or drugs.”

Violence is still a problem in Oakland, Calif., schools after officials substituted counseling for suspensions on similar orders from the Obama regime.

If you think Obama is a lame duck and that his executive actions are meaningless, think again. His policies have dangerous consequences.

Rather than pursue yet another failed federal “solution,” parents should be empowered to enroll their children in any school they wish. Parental choice—far more than any government mandate—would introduce powerful incentives to ensure all students are disciplined fairly. If not, parents would be free to take their children—and their associated education funding—to schools that did.

Having to compete for students and funding would also make schools prioritize order and discipline instead of the feds’ latest fad-for-cash scheme.

Expanding parental choice, not federal overreach, is a far more effective approach to combat racially motivated discipline practices, and it wouldn’t compound existing racism with yet more racism.

Vicki E. Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure.
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