Reducing suspensions for black students is an Obama-era misstep. Betsy DeVos can end it.
If there was ever an issue best handled locally, it’s school discipline. Teachers and principals know far better than federal bureaucrats whether their students have been misbehaving and what to do about it. No, they’re not perfect. That’s why we elect school boards to keep tabs on them. But they’ll make far fewer mistakes if they’re allowed to use their common sense than if they’re forced to dance to the federal government’s tune.
Even when the edicts of distant bureaucracies are superficially reasonable, by the time they reach the foot soldiers on the ground, they get garbled. If the federal government instructs school districts, “Don’t discipline a student unless it’s appropriate,” they will naturally understand it as “Don’t discipline a student unless you are confident that you can persuade a future federal investigator, whose judgment you have no reason to trust, that it was appropriate.” Administrators therefore require teachers to document in excruciating detail the circumstances of a student’s misbehavior before disciplinary action can be taken. By the time the directive reaches teachers, they hear it as: “Just don’t discipline so many students; it only creates giant hassles.”
This is in the nature of bureaucracy. Those who complain that schools overreact are howling at the moon. It’s inevitable.
Alas, the Obama Education Department’s race-obsessed school discipline policy was much worse. As I detail in The Department of Education’s Obama-Era Initiative on Racial Disparities in School Discipline (co-authored with Alison Somin), it was not just wrongheaded, it was beyond the scope of the Department’s legal authority. As part of a misguided effort to enforce Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition on race discrimination, the Department announced that it will cut off federal funding to schools that suspend African-American students at higher rates than white or Asian students — regardless of whether administrators and teachers are motivated by race — unless the schools can “justify” the suspensions.
How does a school “justify” its suspensions? Not by showing that the students at issue actually misbehaved and that sanctions were meted out evenhandedly. The Obama Education Department wanted proof — in the nature of things usually not to be had — that lesser sanctions would have been ineffective. At core, this was an effort to sharply curtail the use of suspensions. Before a school with “bad numbers” suspends a student for punching the daylights out of another, the department wanted proof that just giving him a good talking to wouldn’t have done the trick.
Nobody disputes that African-American students are disciplined at higher rates than white students. It’s also true that white students are disciplined at rates higher than Asians, and boys are disciplined much more than girls — yet those “bad numbers” get no attention.
But here’s the rub: What if the reason for these disparities is that, for whatever reason, some groups, on average, are misbehaving more than others? And what if the cost of failure to discipline misbehaving African-American students falls on their fellow African-American students who are trying to learn amid classroom disorder? The Obama-era policy hurt the very students it was trying to benefit. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has let it continue.