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About time or out of line? Federal government intervenes in school discipline practices

Paul E. Peterson is professor of government and director of the Harvard Program on Education Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He's also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

In a column, he discusses the federal government's expanding role in student discipline.

First some background: The federal government became involved in school discipline in response to mounds of research showing black students are disciplined more often and more severely than white students even for similar transgressions.

An AJC investigation last year found while black students comprised 37 percent of the 1.7 million Georgia students in the 2012-13 school year, they accounted for 57 percent of students expelled and 67 percent given out-of-school suspensions.

White students made up 43 percent of students enrolled, 31 percent of students expelled and 21 percent of those suspended.

This AJC chart shows the disparity:

With that background on Georgia's data, here is Peterson's piece:

By Paul E. Peterson

In January 2014 the Obama Administration’s Departments of Justice and Education, acting together, sent each school district a letter asking local officials to avoid racial bias when suspending or expelling students. The letter said that African-American students receive about 35% of one-time suspensions and about 36% of school expulsions, even though they comprise only about 15% of those attending public schools.

The Departments, referencing the Civil Rights Act of 1965, gave school districts new “guidance,” telling them they risked legal action if school disciplinary policies had “a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.”

Attorney General Eric Holder explained that guidance is needed because current school-district policies, “however well-intentioned they might be, make students feel unwelcome in their own schools; they disrupt the learning process.”

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan claims that racial discrimination in the administration of discipline is “a real problem today — it’s not just an issue from 30 or 40 or 50 years ago.”

But Richard Epstein, a legal expert at the University of Chicago, questions the legal basis for the federal guidance, saying that it “represents the worst in federal policy on K–12 education” in that it is using a dubious, extreme interpretation of the Civil Rights Act for which there is no clear legal precedent “to federalize all issues of discipline in the nation’s schools.”

But does the Obama Administration’s new policy have broad-based support?

To find out, we have asked nationally representative cross-sections of parents, teachers, and the American public as a whole (as part of the 9th annual Education Next survey conducted in May and June of 2015) whether they support or oppose “federal policies that prevent schools from expelling or suspending black and Hispanic students at higher rates than other students?”

Only 23% of parents favor the Obama Administration’s new policy, while 54% oppose it, with the remainder responding that they neither support nor oppose the idea. Among the public as whole, opposition is just about as large, with 51% opposing “no-disparate-impact,” while just 21% back the idea.

A majority in favor of federal involvement in discipline cannot be found among either Democrats or Republicans.  Only 29% of Democrats like the new federal ruling, while barely 11% of Republicans give it their support.

Teachers are even more opposed to federal involvement in school discipline. No less than 59% of teachers oppose federally mandated “no-disparate impact,” while only 23% say they favor it.

Within the African-American community, a plurality of support for the federal policy is found: 41% in favor, 23% opposed.  But whites are overwhelmingly against an expanded federal role in setting school discipline standards.  Just 14% favor the new federal policy, while 57% oppose it.  Among Hispanic respondents, those against federal “guidance” on school disciplinary matters out-number supporters by a 44% to 31% margin.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.