Politics & Policy

A School-to-Prison Pipeline?

Marching in Ferguson, Mo., August 18, 2014. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
There’s little evidence of one.

In March of this year, the Departments of Education and Justice lamented the results of a Civil Rights Data Collection survey: Sixteen percent of black students have been suspended or expelled from a public school, the survey found, compared with only 5 percent of white students. Even in public preschools, 48 percent of students who are suspended are black, though black students make up only 18 percent of the schools’ population.

President Obama cited this phenomenon in his Monday press conference about the ongoing conflict in Ferguson, Mo., tying it to concerns about “possibilities of disparities in treatment” in the criminal-justice system. He then cited his success in passing legislation related to racial profiling in the Illinois legislature.

To the president’s credit, he did not discount the reality of pervasive crime in many minority communities, his own Chicago being the ne plus ultra. And on the need for personal responsibility in those same communities, the president has, on occasion, been very good.

But Monday’s comments reiterate a suggestion common in this administration: the presence of a “school-to-prison pipeline” sustained by systemic racial discrimination, first among teachers and administrators, then among law-enforcement officers and lawyers. The existence of such a nexus is, however, dubious.

Take, for instance, those disproportionate suspension rates: Sixteen percent of black students are suspended or expelled. The obvious question is, Are 16 percent of black students committing infractions that merit suspension or expulsion? Naturally, the administration is disinclined to ask that question. Rather, officials respond as did Arne Duncan, who, commenting on similar numbers in 2012, said that it was the “undeniable truth” that “the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity.”

What the administration and its supporters claim is that black students are disciplined more harshly for “the same or similar” infractions. In March 2014, for example, Russell J. Skiba and Natasha T. Williams of the Equity Project at Indiana University concluded that “there is simply no good evidence that racial differences in discipline are due to differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races.” Severity of behavior, type of infraction, and teacher and student ratings of behavior all fail to account fully for the racial discrepancy.

For the administration, this is clear evidence of racial discrimination. But Joshua Kinsler, a professor at the University of Rochester, contends that these discrepancies are “largely generated by cross-school variation in punishment.” In a 2010 study of data from North Carolina, Kinsler found that racial discrepancies that obtain when looking at all schools disappear when considering a single school. White and black students are treated similarly within a given school, regardless of the race of its teachers or administrators, and regardless of the relative leniency or strictness of the school’s disciplinary policy. The across-schools racial discrepancy is explained by the fact that white students generally attend more lenient schools, while blacks attend stricter ones.

Kinsler does not dismiss the possibility that racial discrimination contributes to racial disparities in school discipline, but his study “suggests that it plays a much smaller role than previously believed.”

Extrapolating his data nationwide, one could try to solve the problem of racial disparities by easing discipline at stricter schools. But in a separate 2011 study, Kinsler found that easing disciplinary policies at these schools reduces overall student achievement by reducing the deterrent against misbehavior. The disruptive student may get to spend more time in the classroom, but that is likely to be to the detriment of the non-disruptive students around him.

The Obama administration’s response to these facts has been largely incoherent. In January 2014 Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled a plan to offer $50 million in grants to more than 1,000 schools to train teachers on disciplinary strategies. “Too often,” said Holder, announcing the proposal at Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School, “so-called zero-tolerance policies, however well intentioned they might be, make students feel unwelcome in their own schools.” However, two years before, Holder had condemned the situation in Texas, in which “97 percent of all suspensions were discretionary and reflected the administrator’s discipline philosophy as much as the student’s behavior.”

As with its economic policy, the administration seems uncomfortable with the notion of tradeoffs — but educational discipline is defined by them. In 2011, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute released an eight-year study that found “that 23 percent of students who had been suspended at least once had contact with the juvenile justice system,” according to the Washington Post. “By comparison, 2 percent of students with no suspensions had juvenile justice involvement.”

Because no causal relation is clear, that is no “pipeline” — but it is a correlation that suggests an obvious-enough fact: Outcomes for students who are suspended are less favorable than outcomes for those who are not. So what are educators to do, when there is evidence that kicking disruptive students out of school harms them, and evidence that keeping them in the classroom harms others? Are there any reasonable disciplinary alternatives?

Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom suggests that schools “consistently and scrupulously enforce a code of respectful behavior among students, punishing even slight infractions with in-school detentions and suspensions” [emphasis in original]. Coulson’s solution, by keeping misbehaving students under school supervision, would prevent them from using their time out of school to get into further trouble — particularly legal trouble — and ensure that they are not completely stripped of classroom time. The academic success of private schools, Coulson says, has been partly a result of their ability to implement just such a program — enabled, of course, by the ability to hire and fire at will, a situation that does not exist in state-run schools. Surely there are additional solutions out there that do not require the involvement of federal appointees.

But following the lead of private schools is certainly not the plan of this administration. The result, instead, of top-down “reform” is likely to be “culturally sensitive” teachers, DOJ-beholden administrators, and classrooms of obedient learners hamstrung by one or two habitually disruptive students who know that they cannot be thrown out.

Racial disparities in school discipline do have a basis in genuine historical inequities, the consequences of which persist today. But the administration is less concerned with these, and with identifying ways to combat them, than with drumming up easier, frequently imaginary, sources of blame, which serves only to reinforce attitudes of victimhood. If the president really wants to “​get at those root causes” of the challenges minorities face, as he declared on Monday, he should stop perpetuating the bogeyman of racists administering every schoolhouse and jailhouse.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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