In the latest example of doubling down on bad policies, the Biden administration is currently seeking to restore Obama-era federal guidance that had severe consequences for student safety. According to recent reports, the policies under consideration would investigate schools based on their rates of discipline of students with disabilities and those from racial minority backgrounds. In the past, these investigations have led to the threats of federal lawsuits against school districts, and mandated a focus on reducing the rates of suspension for disabled and minority students.
All of these policies are based on the woke narrative surrounding “disparate impacts.” Under this theory, even a policy that, on its face, is entirely race-neutral, is adjudged to be racist if it affects individuals from different races or backgrounds at different rates. This narrative has come to the forefront not only in education, but also in policing with countless headlines noting that minorities are arrested and incarcerated at higher rates for a wide variety of crimes.
What is not allowed to be discussed is whether this is a result of true racism, or of differences in behavior that are correlated along race lines. Even though it is politically incorrect, most of the evidence points to the latter. The reality is that on objective measures where there is little or no possibility of racial bias, racial disparities still exist in the rates of anti-social behavior.
For instance, research has found that African Americans are far more likely than their white peers to report having been in a fight at school, and more likely to face mandatory discipline where there is little room for discretion on the part of teachers and principals. There are many explanations for why this could be the case. The most likely is differences in poverty among white and minority students, which correlates very well with student discipline disparities. Indeed, extensive research has found that poverty rates are predictive of misbehavior regardless of student race. But whatever the reason, ignoring misbehavior is likely to lead to greater harm to the students it is designed to protect.
My research on the implementation of similar policies in Wisconsin has found that students report feeling less safe in schools as rates of suspension for minority students decline. Districts that implement kinder, gentler discipline policies see test scores decline over time. Across the country, teachers complain that students who have engaged in behaviors that warrant a suspension are being given more lenient punishment in the name of keeping numbers down. Some have even attributed the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School to a school system that turned a blind eye to the eventual killer’s behavior one too many times.
This lack of support for teachers is causing some of them to leave the classroom entirely. Given that majority-minority districts are some of the most in need of effective educators, this is especially problematic. Indeed, because America has many majority-minority schools, the students who bear the brunt of this policy failure are other minority students who are focusing on their schooling and want to succeed.
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and school shutdowns, the achievement gap between white and minority students has only expanded. Parents who lacked the resources to supplement their children’s educations during the era of at-home “learning” are desperate for schools to help their kids make up for lost time. This makes fighting back against this discipline guidance from the Biden administration all the more critical. Students who want to learn deserve the chance to be in safe, non-disruptive classrooms where they can gain knowledge. The alternative where chaos reigns in the name of political correctness is unconscionable.
Dr. Will Flanders is research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.