WSJ December 22, 2018

Reversing a policy that undercut local ability to impose order in schools.

By The Editorial Board | 445 words

The way her critics are shouting, you would have thought Betsy DeVos wants to reinstitute Jim Crow. What the education secretary is really pushing is a return to common sense and local control for school discipline.

On Friday the Education and Justice Departments officially withdrew Obama-era guidance on school discipline. It acted on advice from the Federal Commission on School Safety, which Mrs. DeVos chairs and which President Trump set up after a shooter murdered 17 people in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The report offers many best practices from around the country for improving student safety, but the most controversial was scrapping the Obama guidance.

This guidance was handed down in 2014 to address the “schools-to-prison pipeline”for minority students. Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute sums up its logic: School districts rely too much on suspensions; black students are suspended at disproportionately high rates because of racial bias; suspensions cause long-term harm to those suspended; therefore schools should limit traditional discipline (such as suspensions) in favor of “restorative” approaches that emphasize dialogue over punishment.

The Obama Administration enforced this logic via a “Dear Colleague” letter informing schools across America that they were on notice for racial disparities in discipline. No longer would the federal government require evidence that a school treated, say, a black student more harshly than it treated a white student guilty of the same behavior. Instead, racial disparities in suspension and expulsion rates could themselves be grounds for finding the schools in violation of federal anti-discrimination law. Though couched as “guidance,” this de facto rule gave schools an incentive to overlook disciplinary problems and not report dangerous students to law enforcement.

Critics say this is leading to more dangerous classrooms and disrupters going unpunished. Notably, the Broward County school system in Florida pioneered this non-discipline philosophy the Obama administration later embraced. Some say this led authorities in Parkland to overlook red flags surrounding shooter Nikolas Cruz—from his disturbed personality to other criminal behavior.

Critics of Mrs. DeVos, such as the left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center, say she is moving to rescind the Obama guidance “to make it easier for schools to discriminate against children.” This is false. She is rolling back a remarkably arrogant federal policy that has used race as a cudgel to dictate disciplinary practices in thousands of schools with vastly different students and problems.

Schools should have options other than suspension or expulsion to handle disruptive students. But that argues for more discretion for local teachers and principals—not a diktat from Washington threatening civil-rights punishment for schools whose numbers don’t add up the way the feds want.■