Will good intentions cause a racial quota system in school discipline?

The National Review is generally not the place I go to for insightful articles about school discipline. But Peter Kirsanow’s recent editorial on the Obama administration’s Dear Colleague Letter on nondiscriminatory school discipline policies got my attention this week.

Some background: The DOE’s letter argues that although school discipline policies are not prima facie discriminatory, their disparate impact on black and Hispanic students (a very real phenomenon) suggests a discriminatory effect.

Kirsanow argues that the consequence of addressing the disparate impact will in effect be a racial quota system. This is not an unreasonable conclusion to draw: if we are only focused on outputs (the number of students suspended of each race) and only measure success by our ability to bring per capita suspensions for each race into alignment, then we may indeed be encouraging schools to simply suspend fewer black and Hispanic students to avoid regulatory punishments.

I’m certainly in no position to question Kirsanow’s bona fides on civil rights issues, but I do find this to be a fairly cynical and circumscribed take. At no point has the DOE said that we should only focus on metrics; that would be preposterous. Every serious person knows that the ultimate goal should be student learning; we seek to curb discipline problems because they prevent students from achieving success in school, not because we want our numbers to look better.

I think the DOE is enlightened enough to realize this. The danger, though, is that schools for whom restorative-type policies aren’t working may resort to an old-fashioned juking of the stats rather than face the wrath of regulators who look only at the bottom line.

While I agree that the disparate impact is troubling and have no doubt that in some or many cases it may be the result of discrimination, the issue is simply too complex to solve by looking at one stat alone.



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