The Education and Justice Departments of the Obama administration today issued extensive joint guidance to K–12 schools on student discipline and, in particular, on how the administration will determine if school-discipline policies are discriminatory on the basis of race or ethnicity. They’re extensive, but that’s not to say they contain much new from this administration; and while what’s in here is not new, that’s not to say that it’s not disturbing.
Predictably, the administration promises to be extremely aggressive in using the “disparate impact” approach to its civil-rights enforcement — that is, in ensuring that school-discipline policies that have disproportionate results across races are severely scrutinized. It’s a fair question whether the federal government in 2014 needs to be micromanaging schools, period, to ensure there is no actual discrimination, but certainly it’s a bad thing that the administration is going to be insisting on racial proportionality. And a careful look at pages 11–12 of the administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter makes clear that this is just what it will do. Any racial disproportion is fair game, and the policy giving rise to the disproportion must be “necessary” and “important” and have enough “tightness of . . . fit” to make the federal educrats happy. Even then the school district will lose if the educrats think that they in their wisdom can come up with “comparably effective alternative policies or practices.” The two “examples” given later in the letter are deliberately unilluminating.
The fact of the matter is that not all racial and ethnic groups (not to mention boys versus girls) are equally likely to be discipline problems. There are a variety of reasons for this, but I will just note here what is probably the main one. There are huge differences among groups in out-of-wedlock birthrates — more than seven out of ten African Americans, six out of ten Native Americans, and five out of ten Hispanics, versus fewer than three out of ten non-Hispanic whites and two out of ten Asian Americans are born to unmarried women — and children growing up in homes without fathers are much more likely to get into all kinds of trouble, including at school.
If schools are pressured to “get their numbers” right in this area, they will either start disciplining students who shouldn’t be or, more likely, will not discipline some students who ought to be. If unruly students are not disciplined, the kids who will lose out the most will be well-behaved students in classes with undisciplined classmates, and those well-behaved students are themselves likely to be poor black or Latino kids. Somehow the Left always forgets about them in its eagerness to show compassion.
It is true that there are difficult issues in the school-discipline area — as always in balancing group versus individual interests — and conservatives have been quick to recognize the problems with “zero tolerance” policies in particular. But it profits nothing to view these problems through a racial lens.