Education is a civil right; it is the foundation of economic security, well-being, and democracy.
Unfortunately, a recently released survey of all public schools in the nation demonstrates the lost educational opportunity experienced by many students, especially by African Americans and students with educational disabilities.
Actions taken by the Obama administration to promote fair discipline practices via increased transparency in school discipline and via historic discipline guidance to schools promise to yield some of the most significant advances in educational civil rights in decades.
The Department of Education survey reveals that African Americans are three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended and expelled in grades K-12 and almost twice as likely to experience multiple suspensions as preschoolers. African-American boys in grades K-12 are suspended at over three times the rate of white boys; African-American girls are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race/ethnicity, six times the rate of white girls.
Illinois has higher gaps in suspension rates between African American and white students — for both boys and girls — than other states. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended and more than three times as likely to be physically restrained as students without disabilities. The body of research further indicates that the heightened discipline is not explained by more frequent or serious misbehavior by students of color or students with disabilities, with 95% of out-of-school suspensions being for non-violent offenses, such as disrespect or uniform violation.
This research reflects the Obama administration’s excellent work to enhance transparency in discipline practices within educational settings, enhancements for which I advocated strongly. Although the offenses may be minor, the consequences are severe. Exclusionary school discipline reduces classroom instruction and greatly increases the likelihood of grade repetition, dropping out, and juvenile justice system involvement. Even minor discipline actions can result in approximately twice the risk of retention or dropping out. Exclusionary discipline results in long-term academic problems that undermine the civil rights of certain students and bolster the school-to-prison pipeline.
To address these educational disparities, the Obama administration issued in January the first-ever federal guidance, recognizing that substantial racial disparities in discipline exist, outlining principles to understand relevant federal law, and offering resources and recommendations for schools on how to identify, avoid, and remedy discriminatory discipline.
Importantly, the guidance clarifies that schools are responsible for discriminatory actions whether they are intentional or appear neutral but have a disparate impact. Issuing this guidance removes the excuses for non-action due to lack of awareness of a problem, limited knowledge of alternative discipline programs, or complaisance that theoretically-neutral policies absolve schools of responsibility for change. Together, the guidance and the data enhancements promise to catalyze action to promote positive learning environments, maximize classroom instruction, and respect federal civil rights laws.
Providing schools and educators with direct supports to schools prior to a civil rights violation will be a fundamental tool to improving educational opportunity. For this reason, I and other legislators champion bills to promote school-wide, evidenced-based disciplinary systems, such as positive behavior interventions and supports, social and emotional learning, and restorative justice programs.
Research demonstrates that these programs improve school climate, academic performance, and student attendance, as well as reduce discipline referrals, suspensions, and expulsions. These programs promote positive learning environments so teachers can teach and students can learn.
The school-to-prison pipeline is a profound, pernicious problem in our country that undermines educational opportunities for certain students. Federal law requires that public schools educate all children, regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age. The Obama administration’s actions are an important step in implementing the law. I am committed to vigorously advancing civil rights in education by promoting equal educational opportunity through fair discipline practices.
Congressman Danny K. Davis represents the 7th Congressional District of Illinois, is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and serves as the co-chair of the Education and Labor Taskforce of Congressional Black Caucus.