Why School Discipline Is a Perplexing Issue for Education Reformers
January 5, 2018

By Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and one of the founders of the PIE Network

Ever since our founding, the PIE Network has been proud of its commitment to ideological diversity. In fact, a major motivator for forming the Network was the realization that groups on the left, such as the Center for American Progress, and those on the right, such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, were finding so much common ground.

But we also agreed to disagree on issues that divided us, like private school choice. Now we can add school discipline reform—especially as it relates to the federal role in civil rights enforcement—to the list.

I totally understand and respect why many members of PIE Network would speak up in support of the Obama-era policy on school discipline reform. The stark racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions raise real concerns about bias and discrimination. President Trump’s racially divisive rhetoric has made many students of color and their families feel under attack. And groups like Educators for Excellence are right that well-trained teachers and well-led schools can do a lot to curtail discipline problems before they even start—through engaging curricula, strong relationships with students and parents, positive school cultures, and more. Bottom-up efforts to help schools find non-exclusionary approaches to discipline are absolutely worthy of support.

But when advocates propose top-down mandates promulgated by governmental bodies via policy directive or regulation, the picture grows much more complicated. There are two main problems with policies to severely limit suspensions. First, they override the autonomy of educators, including in charter schools. If Success Academy, for example, has found a discipline approach that works for its students and families—who chose the school—who are we to second-guess its leaders? Especially if their approach is focused on high expectations for behavior, which is close kin to high expectations for student work and effort.

Second, pressuring schools to reduce suspensions without simultaneously helping them do the hard work of developing alternative approaches will have a predictable outcome: disorder and violence will increase, and learning will suffer. Recent studies in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia are showing signs of this very dynamic. To be sure, it’s because dysfunctional schools and systems are implementing discipline reform poorly, just like they implement so many other initiatives poorly. But to blame “implementation” is a cop-out that ill-serves students. Policies must be designed for the reality of the schools we’ve got, not the utopian schools we wish we had. If mandates are leading to unintended consequences, we need to face them—and fix them.

When we add the federal government to the mix, the situation grows even more complex. For sure, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights should respond to specific complaints of discrimination against students, including when it comes to discipline. That has been a fundamental federal role for decades, and should remain so. The question regarding the 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter on discipline, however, isn’t about acts of discrimination, or about whether Uncle Sam should offer helpful “guidance.” It’s about whether the feds should launch proactive investigations in any school system with racial disparities in its discipline rates. Given that almost every district in the country has such disparities—and that no district wants to be subject to a civil rights investigation, even if later found innocent of discrimination—this policy amounts to an implicit order for systems nationwide to dramatically reduce suspensions of children of color. The impulse behind this policy is understandable, but without a mechanism for providing support in implementation, it is a recipe for unintended consequences nationwide.

School discipline reform has been a topic for debate at PIE Network convenings for the past several years, and should remain so in the future. Where we can find common ground—as with initiatives to support schools that want to try alternative approaches to suspensions and the like—we should embrace it. But when it comes to top-down mandates—especially those emanating from Washington—we will have to agree to disagree. Which doesn’t mean we won’t still work together on a myriad of other important reforms.

Michael J. Petrilli

Mike Petrilli is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's President

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