Study: Obama-Era Guidance on Racial Disparity in Suspension Has Mixed Impact

Analysis of Wisconsin concludes class, disability status often factors

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October 19, 2017

A new study from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) casts doubt on the success of an Obama-era guidance meant to reduce racial disparity in school suspensions, arguing that it did not always reduce racial disparity, confused causes of suspensions, and may not be in the best interest of teachers.

The study, which focuses on Wisconsin schools, found a 41 percent decline in suspensions since 2007-2008. The racial disparity has closed some statewide, but has remained essentially unchanged in Milwaukee Public Schools, where half of all African-American students in the state are educated.

The study examines the impact of the Obama administration's efforts to close the racial gap in suspensions. A 2016 Department of Education study found that black students were 3.8 times more likely to be suspended than white students, although the WILL study notes that those disparities may be determined by other, confounding variables.

Then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced in March 2010 the Obama administration's focus on "education equity," attempting to correct disparate outcomes across race in education. As part of this move, DOE began reviewing districts' disciplinary procedures. In the summer of 2011, the DOE partnered with the Justice Department to debut its Supportive School Discipline Initiative (SSDI), focused on "dismantl[ing] what is commonly named the 'school-to-prison pipeline'" by encouraging disciplinary alternatives to suspension.

Duncan issued a "dear colleague" letter in January 2014 that broadly interpreted existing discrimination policies, explaining that the DOE would interpret a "disparate impact" by race in suspension practices as discriminatory, even if no discriminatory intent could be found.

The study concludes that suspension rates began to decline at the same time suspension equity became a focus of the Obama DOE, and the racial gap in suspensions closed statewide in Wisconsin. However, the study found that the suspension rate fell more for white students than it did for black or Hispanic students in Milwaukee, suggesting a widening of the racial gap.

Further, the study found that when other variables were properly controlled for, race did not explain suspension rates across a number of Wisconsin's major school districts. Instead, the study's authors argued, socioeconomic status and disability diagnosis—which tend to correlate with race—have more predictive power.

Looking at five major Wisconsin school districts—Milwaukee, Green Bay, Madison, Kenosha, and Racine—the study found that in all five, the share of economically disadvantaged or disabled students had more predictive power of suspension rate than did race. Those districts make up 19.1 percent of total enrollment in the state, WILL told the Free Beacon.

"I think what we see is that the factors that are impacting suspension rates differ at the district level. We see some districts where maybe there is a racial factor. We see other districts where poverty and disability seem to be the driver," said Will Flanders, the study's author.

Declining suspensions may also have reduced teachers' job satisfaction and performance, the study notes. A 2015 poll found that approximately 51 percent of the general public, and 59 percent of teachers, opposed policies requiring equal rates of suspension across racial groups. Anecdotal evidence cited by the WILL study points to teachers frustrated by the limits the "dear colleague" letter placed on their ability to enforce discipline.

"There's nothing going to happen, and the kids know it," one teacher said in a report cited by WILL. "It's hard to keep order in a classroom when the kids know there is no consequence to misbehavior."

This challenge to teachers' ability to keep control of their classrooms is a hidden downside of the Obama DOE's policy, Flanders explained.

"We're not going to say that there aren't some circumstances where alternative discipline might be effective, but we think this overall motivation across the country to reduce suspensions without consideration of other factors could be having a negative effect," he said.

New Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has already rescinded one "dear colleague" letter, retracting Obama-era guidance on adjudicating sexual assault claims on campus. Now, Flanders says, she should consider rescinding the Obama nationwide policy, returning to a more local solution to the problem of discipline.

"We really shouldn't be instituting a national policy that we need to be focused on disparate impact, that we should be reducing suspension. What instead we should do is encourage the 'dear colleague' letter to be reversed, and to restore to the school districts themselves, and to the states, the power in determining what policies work best for their school district," Flanders said.