A 2014 guidance letter on racial disparities in school discipline has helped create classroom chaos.
When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced last week that the Trump administration would revisit its predecessor’s “guidance” on adjudicating accusations of campus sexual assault, she added that “the era of ‘rule by letter’ is over.” Well, not quite. A second instance of the Education Department’s overreach under President Obama, this one involving discipline in public schools, remains firmly in place.
In 2012 the Education Department released a study showing that black students were three times as likely to be suspended and expelled as their white counterparts. Two years later, the department issued a “Dear Colleague” letter warning school districts to address this racial imbalance, or else. The letter said that even if a disciplinary policy “is neutral on its face—meaning that the policy itself does not mention race—and is administered in an evenhanded manner” the district still could face a federal civil-rights investigation if the policy “has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.”
The threat worked. Fending off charges of discrimination can be expensive and embarrassing, so spooked school districts chose instead to discipline fewer students in deference to Washington. The Obama guidance didn’t start the trend—suspensions were down nearly 20% between 2011 and 2014—but the letter almost certainly hastened it. The effects are being felt in schools across the country, leaving black and Hispanic students, the policy’s theoretical beneficiaries, worse off.
Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator.