breaking

It’s official: DeVos has axed Obama discipline guidelines meant to reduce suspensions of students of color

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

It’s official: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has rescinded the guidance issued by the Obama administration directing schools to reduce racial disparities in how they discipline students.

The move comes just days after a federal commission, led by DeVos, recommended the change in its final report, saying that the guidelines made schools less safe. There is limited evidence that’s true, though teachers at some schools have been frustrated by efforts to cut down on suspensions.

A letter rescinding the guidance was released jointly by the education and justice departments on Friday.

“Every student has the right to attend school free from discrimination. They also have the right to be respected as individuals and not treated as statistics,” DeVos said in a statement.

“In too many instances, though, I’ve heard from teachers and advocates that the previous administration’s discipline guidance often led to school environments where discipline decisions were based on a student’s race and where statistics became more important than the safety of students and teachers,” she said. “Our decision to rescind that guidance today makes it clear that discipline is a matter on which classroom teachers and local school leaders deserve and need autonomy.”

The move ends two years of speculation about when DeVos would make the call about the guidance, and continues the Trump administration’s approach to rolling back Obama administration policies.

The guidance was issued in January 2014, and told school leaders to seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom. It also noted that black and Hispanic students were suspended much more often than other students, and that suspensions were correlated with higher dropout rates and lower academic achievement.

The guidance warned that significant, unexplained racial disparities in discipline rates could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law. For civil rights organizations, this was an effort to address racism in schools and an overdue correction to the “zero tolerance” approach schools had been adopting since the 1990s. But for conservatives, the Obama-era guidance represented government overreach. In schools where suspensions were reduced without alternatives, the guidance encouraged misbehavior to go unchecked, they argued.

That’s the argument DeVos made Friday in her statement. The letter offers additional justification, saying the departments concluded that the guidance pushes “advance policy preferences and positions not required or contemplated by” federal law. The education department’s Office of Civil Rights also issued a separate Q&A. “It is not appropriate for OCR or a school to impose racial quotas or proportionality requirements for suspensions or other discipline sanctions as a remedy for discrimination,” it says.

The guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require changes either. But many school districts have overhauled their suspension policies in recent years. It will now be up to local officials to decide whether to change course.

Many education and civil rights groups are likely to encourage them not to, and have criticized the commission’s recommendation this week.

“This guidance is vital to deter systemic disparities, implicit biases, and discipline policies with minor and subjectively defined offenses (such as insubordination),” the National Association of School Psychologists said in a statement.

Since the guidance was issued, suspensions have fallen nationwide. Federal data shows that racial disparities have remained, though. In the 2015-16 school year, for example, 25 percent of all students suspended at least once were black boys and 14 percent were black girls, despite each group only making up 8 percent of all students in schools.

Many school districts cited the guidance as motivation for examining racial disparities in how they discipline students, and have vowed to continue that work. Other superintendents have said the guidance didn’t make a huge impact directly in how they looked at school discipline.

“I would encourage them to continue to implement discipline reforms that they believe will foster improved outcomes for their students,” DeVos concluded.

Read more: What it means for Betsy DeVos to roll back the Obama school discipline rules

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.