Controversies

To improve education, we need to let teachers administer discipline regardless of race

FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2012 file photo, students walk in the hallways as they enter the lunch line of the cafeteria at Draper Middle School in Rotterdam, N.Y.

FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2012 file photo, students walk in the hallways as they enter the lunch line of the cafeteria at Draper Middle School in Rotterdam, N.Y.  (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

In 2012 the Education Department released a national study showing that black students are suspended from school at a higher rate than whites, and the findings fueled a predictable debate over whether school discipline policies are racist. Two years later, the department sent a letter to school districts warning them to do something about the disparity—in effect, to stop suspending so many disruptive black students or risk becoming the subject of a federal civil-rights investigation—and the results have been just as predictable.

The title alone of a new report on the fallout, “School Discipline Reform and Disorder,” might tell you all you need to know. The author, Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute, notes that 27 states and more than 50 of the country’s largest school districts have moved to reduce suspensions in recent years, often to the dismay of those on the front lines. A Chicago teacher said her school became “lawless” after the new discipline policy was implemented. A teacher in Oklahoma City said “we were told that referrals would not require suspension unless there was blood.” A Buffalo teacher who was kicked in the head by a student said his charges are well aware of the new policy. “The kids walk around and say ‘We can’t get suspended—we don’t care what you say.’ ”

Mr. Eden’s report isn’t just a collection of anecdotes. It also includes plenty of empirical data that point to a change for the worse in school order. In New York City, home to the nation’s largest school system, suspensions rose steadily between 2002 and 2011 under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose policies targeted disruptive students in the most violent schools. But Mr. Bloomberg softened his position somewhat in 2012 for first-time offenders, and his successor, Bill de Blasio, who assumed office in 2014, has made it much more difficult to suspend even those students who’ve committed repeated infractions.

Following the implementation of these reforms, school suspensions in New York fell by nearly 50%, but survey data of students, teachers and parents show that the learning climate in many schools has suffered. Moreover, the effects of the new policies haven’t been evenly distributed, especially under the current mayor, writes Mr. Eden. “Under de Blasio’s discipline reform, of schools that serve 90+% minority students, nearly 60% saw a deterioration in mutual student respect, about 50% saw a deterioration in student-reported physical fighting, more than 40% saw a deterioration in teacher-reported order and discipline, and nearly 40% saw an increase in student-reported drug and alcohol use and gang activity.” Overall, fighting, gang activity and drug use worsened at three times as many schools as saw an improvement.

To continue reading Jason Riley's column in the Wall Street Journal, click here.