I was a guest on Ray Dunaway’s program on Hartford-based WTIC discussing (audio) the new Minneapolis plan for race-conscious school discipline, which is likely to be replicated around the country as more cities and states fall into line with the new Department of Justice policy. Earlier here, and a somewhat different view from Coyote, who writes: “By the way, in today’s legal environment, any private employer who says they don’t put extra scrutiny on terminations of folks in protected classes, or don’t increase the warnings and documentation required internally before firing someone in a protected class, is probably a liar.”
The groundbreaking move follows negotiations with the federal government, which sent out a letter to school systems warning that disciplinary patterns with “disparate impact” were under suspicion. There is of course a reformist cast for rethinking some harsh aspects of school discipline systems, zero tolerance policies being one, but not the only, example. Such reforms might well have the effect of narrowing disproportionately high rates of discipline for students in some minority groups. But the Minneapolis system’s move (apparently encouraged by Washington) to consider race explicitly in the suspension process, with minority kids getting an additional layer of review, raises the likelihood of a challenge under the Constitution’s equal protection clause, as does the setting of an enforceable compliance objective of achieving identical suspension rates from one demographic group to the next independent of whether misconduct rates are identical. [Tom Corbett/Star Tribune, Hans Bader/CEI, John Steele Gordon/Commentary, RiShawn Biddle/Dropout Nation (a different view)].
And so the experiment begins. The politics are pretty interesting, with neither the teachers’ unions nor the voters in places like Baltimore city necessarily thrilled about this development. It’s far more popular with various legal services groups, liberal foundations, and of course the Obama Administration’s Department of Education and Justice Department. [Washington Post, earlier on similar Los Angeles initiative and on the race angle]
Under pressure from higher-ups, Los Angeles schools have sharply reduced suspensions of disruptive kids — or have they just reduced the rate at which they report suspensions? At any rate, no one seems to be happy. “Last year, the L.A. school board became the first in the state to ban defiance as grounds for suspension; legislation would expand that ban statewide. … those in the trenches say it hasn’t been easy to comply with the mandates.” [L.A. Times, with comments; more on school discipline]
My colleague Andrew Coulson:
Over the past several years, University of Rochester professor Joshua Kinsler has explored this question [of racial disparity in school discipline] using uniquely rich datasets. What he finds is that the variation in punishment between the races is largely explained by variation in discipline policies at the school level: black students are more likely to attend very strict schools. …
in order to achieve the administration’s goal of eliminating the racial discipline gap, schools that currently have many disruptive students and strict discipline policies will have to relax those policies.
Which brings us to Kinsler’s most important discovery: easing discipline policies in such schools causes overall student achievement to fall.
Earlier here and here.
Caleb Brown interviews me on the very, very bad new federal guidelines demanding that schools avoid disciplinary practices with “disparate impact” — in practice, those that result in more-than-proportional suspensions of minority or special-ed kids. Earlier here.
The Justice Department and Department of Education have sent out a Dear Colleague letter discouraging schools from pursuing strict discipline policies against student misbehavior, especially against “routine” or “minor” infractions; Education Secretary Arne Duncan cited tardiness and disrespect as examples of the latter. [Christian Science Monitor]
Assuming that the federal government has somehow acquired the legitimate constitutional authority to begin dictating the fine points of disciplinary policy to local schools in the first place — a big if — it might seem at first that much of this is innocuous. Some early coverage, for example, makes it sound as if the letter is mostly aimed at obtaining a reconsideration of zero-tolerance policies, long criticized in this space, as well as the sorts of suspensions and expulsions that are based on far-fetched dangers like finger guns or forbidden hugs.
Unfortunately, there’s much more. The letter represents the culmination of a years-long drive toward imposing tighter Washington oversight on school discipline policies that result in “disparate impact” among racial or other groups. Policies that result in the suspension of differentially more minority kids, or special-ed kids, will now be suspect — even if the rate of underlying behavior is not in fact uniform among every group. (Special-ed kids, for example, include many placed in that category because of emotional and behavioral problems that correlate with a higher likelihood of acting out in misbehavior. Boys misbehave more than girls.)
If the policy helps speed the correction of some overly harsh, mechanical school policies, both under the zero-tolerance rubric and otherwise, it may have some positive side effects. But the disparate-impact premise is a pernicious one that’s sure to create many new problems of its own. [Andrew Coulson, Cato; Scott Johnson, PowerLine]
More: in 2012 Senate testimony, Andrew Coulson pointed out that 1) compared with the alternatives, the use of out-of-school suspensions appears to improve the learning environment for other (non-disciplined) students by protecting them from disruption; 2) zero-tolerance policies were adopted in the first place in part as a defense for administrators against disparate-impact charges. In other words, the new supposed remedy (disparate-impact scrutiny) helped cause the disease to which it is being promoted as the cure. (& welcome Andrew Sullivan, Scott Greenfield, Hans Bader readers; cross-posted at Cato at Liberty)
I’ve been writing more lately on policy issues arising in my adopted state, such as the boat tax and Baltimore’s fight with liquor stores, and you can keep up by following my local Twitter account @walterolsonmd:
- If you think the current federal crusade on disparate minority school discipline rates is unreasonable, check out the Maryland state board of education’s even loopier plans for racial quotas in discipline [Hans Bader and letter, Roger Clegg/Center for Equal Opportunity] “However, there’s no plan for gender balance in school discipline.” [Joanne Jacobs]
- After the state’s high court stigmatized pit bulls as distinctively dangerous, the state legislature has (as warned of in this space) reacted by extending liability to owners of all dogs, “first bite” or not [WaPo] “The trial lawyer’s expert just testified he sees dogs as a man or woman’s ego on the end of a leash.” [Mike Smigiel]
- A Washington Post article asks: “Is the ‘nanny state’ in Montgomery working?” (No, but it makes councilors in the affluent liberal redoubt feel good about themselves.) And even in Montgomery, councilman George Leventhal (D-At Large) spots a Laffer Curve [Dan Mitchell, Cato at Liberty]
- Also in Montgomery, county slates vote next month on union-backed bill to require service contractors to take over employment of displaced workers for 90 days [Gazette] Leventhal is caustic: “I do not only work for SEIU 32BJ. My colleagues may feel they do.” [Rachel Baye, Examiner]
- Despite its solicitude for the SEIU, the county’s concern for low-income workers has its limits, as when property owners seek to increase the stock of affordable housing near jobs by dividing one-family residences into two-family [Ben Ross, Greater Greater Washington]
- “Doctors, hospitals concerned about hefty malpractice awards” [Baltimore Sun]
- MD public pension planners whistle through graveyard [Hayley Peterson, Washington Examiner, Tom Coale/HoCoRising, Ivan Osorio, CEI "Open Market"] The state still hasn’t shaken its AAA bond rating, but Annapolis lawmakers are working to change that by unionizing more state workers [Washington Times]