Departments of Education and Justice Endorse Restorative, not Punitive, School Discipline

On Wednesday, January 8, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued new guidance to reduce zero tolerance discipline policies in the nation’s public schools and to encourage schools to handle routine, non-criminal infractions inside schools instead of turning students over to police.  The goal is to make the climate at school safer and more welcoming and significantly to reduce what is known as the school to prison pipeline, as young people find themselves in the criminal justice system for what are often minor infractions.

Special thanks for years of advocacy leading to this change in policy must go to an active coalition of national education and civil rights organizations who have worked doggedly for changes in particular school districts and in federal policy.  They include Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NAACP, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Justice Policy Institute, and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.  The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have endorsed these changes.

This effort was made especially urgent when, after the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, more schools began  hiring police guards, called “school resource officers” (SROs) on the assumption that police are needed to protect the well-being of children.  Advocates have continued to point out that increasing police presence at school criminalizes children by escalating the involvement of the police in matters that could be (and have in the past have been) handled by school personnel.

On January 12, the NY Times editorialized on the change in federal guidance: “The guidance documents included striking data on racial inequities.  For example, African-American students represent only 15 percent of public school students, but they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and  36 percent of those expelled.”  “The treatment of disabled students should be a source of national shame: They represent 12 percent of students in the country, but they make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.”

In a press release celebrating the change in federal guidance, the American Federation of Teachers noted that in addition to developing better training for school personnel, it will be essential to restore staff whose positions have been eliminated due to cuts in school funding.  In 34 states, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state expenditures for education have not recovered their 2008, pre-Recession levels.  AFT recommends widespread restoration of critical school personnel including counselors, psychologists, nurses, and school social workers.

Expanding Accountability through Rating and Ranking of Colleges: A Bad Idea

In Silly Season at the U.S. Department of Education, Dr. Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, explores serious concerns about President Obama’s recent proposal that the federal government bring the kind of accountability that has been imposed on K-12 public education to colleges and universities.  The President and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have proposed that the Department of Education rate and rank colleges and universities and make federal aid and loans more available to students at those institutions that make themselves accountable to federal standards.

In August, Tamar Lewin, writing for the N.Y. Times summarized the President’s plan: “to rate colleges before the 2015 school year based on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend…  Mr. Obama hopes that starting in 2018, the ratings would be tied to financial aid, so that students at highly rated colleges might get larger federal grants and more affordable loans. But that would require new legislation.”

While it is a good idea to encourage universities to serve more low-income students, all of the issues in the President’s plan are far more complicated than they appear.  Dr. McGuire questions whether it will be possible for the government to rank colleges by their educational outcomes: “Plenty of people who actually do know what they’re talking about have raised numerous legitimate issues about the ability of this government to implement a collegiate rating system based on some pretty dubious data.”

Dr. McGuire explains that while expanding access for low income students is a desirable and worthy goal, colleges must find a way to finance the additional services and courses such students need. She questions the value of ranking colleges and universities by their graduation rates: “Institutions that do a great job providing access for low income students take the risk of lower graduation rates since the students do not progress through the system in the same way as the more privileged traditional students…. Women students stand to lose a lot in this new regulatory scheme… these are students who share characteristics like working nearly full-time, raising children as single parents, are self-supporting, attend school part-time in some semesters, being the first generation in college, commuting to campus, often attending multiple institutions…”

President Obama also proposes to measure and compare the earnings of graduates as part of his college ranking scheme. While Dr. McGuire doesn’t address this factor, it represents a worrisome trend in many of the policies of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education: quantifying and monetizing as the way to define value.  If a teacher or a social worker feels called to such a vocation and does a good job, should we measure that person’s lifetime contribution by the work itself or by the salary paid for that work?  Should we we be developing a college ranking system that rewards institutions that produce sports stars and financial tycoons and embeds the worst values of consumer capitalism into the policies of the U.S. Department of Education?