Destroying Schools to Achieve Racial Justice

I've long suspected that the federal government is consciously subverting American education. Deep inside the Department of Education, there must exist a top-secret Bureau of Educational Disasters (BED) whose mission is to concoct alluring but guaranteed-to-fail, academic achievement-killing policies whose sole benefits are more jobs and mindless paperwork. These would be the folks who recently bribed states to retain academically troublesome students whose behavior hindered decent students so as to make America "better educated," i.e., a nation of high school "graduates" barely able to read their diplomas.   

Well, like all industrious Washington bureaucrats, BED, with Department of Justice support, soldiers onward. Their latest education-destroying innovation is eliminating the disproportionate suspension and expulsions of African-American students. This is not empty rhetoric; it is included in the Obama administration's $4.3-billion Race to the Top initiative, and schools that fail to mend their ways will lose federal funds and face expensive litigation at a time of shrinking education budgets. In fact, the future is already here, as schools are increasingly being targeted in resource-draining civil rights complains about disciplinary unevenness (see here).

Though one could argue that black youngsters cannot learn unless permitted to stay in the classroom, and whites and blacks should receive the same punishment for identical offenses, this initiative would win a Nobel Prize if such a prize were awarded for foolishness.

Let us concede that disciplinary infractions vary by race, just as in criminality, and that the gap has expanded since the 1970s (see here), but nobody yet demands whites and blacks be incarcerated according to their proportions in the population. The real quest should be colorblind justice. Needless to say, with millions of students attending schools with varied disciplinary rules and dissimilar administrative procedures and resources, ensuring colorblind justice would be a Herculean task, especially when educators already struggle with just educating youngsters.

How is this seemingly alluring "racial fairness" to be accomplished? The answer is not on a case-by-case basis by scrutinizing millions of outcomes to detect bias. Instead, bureaucrats will use the "disparate impact" approach --  i.e., it will be assumed that racially disproportional punishment inherently equals racial discrimination. Thus, if African-Americans constitute 30% of the student body but half of all expulsions, racial discrimination is demonstrated.

Happily for overworked champions of racial justice, this just-compare-the-proportions approach is a snap. In an instant, decisions regarding individual students made by teachers and principals familiar with detailed circumstances are swept aside by Washington bean counters.

Actually, racial disparities are just the beginning. Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has also called for proportionality for disabled students (see here), and while "disabled" might conjure up images of wheelchair-bound students, this category also includes those with below-average intelligence, often compounded with psychological problems inclining them to disruption, if not violence (see Tomsho and Golden, "Educating Eric: A Troubled Student was Put into Regular Classes. Then He Killed the Principal. Wall Street Journal, 2007, May 12-13).

Gender is also involved: black girls were suspended at a rate four times higher than white girls. Meanwhile, whites are more likely to be punished than Asian students.

With the burden of proof now put on school officials to justify racial imbalances, punishment by quotas is the only sensible response. Thus, in a wave of the bureaucratic wand, the threat of expensive litigation and interrupted federal largess vanishes. The only requirement is tracking penalties by race and soon-to-be other Washington-specified traits, perhaps monthly. If numbers drift out of line as the month draws to a close, just adjust discipline to make quota. Racial justice has never been so simple.

Alas, reality is more complicated, and this by-the-numbers policy invites catastrophe. Begin with a seemingly minor detail -- cataloguing racial identities. Though the discussion is always put in black and white terms, not even the U.S. Bureau of the Census has successfully devised clear-cut, scientifically anchored racial categories, and these become murkier by the day thanks to immigration and intermarriage (see here). How, for example, do schools classify a dark-skinned Spanish-speaking Dominican immigrant students who reject the "African-American" label?

These classification tribulations must be resolved for every student in America, and Nazi-era procedures outlined in the infamous Nuremburg Laws seem inescapable. Will schools with large heterogeneous student bodies hire a "Racial Identity Officer" with a degree in physical anthropology who certifies each student's race according to explicit rules that would survive judicial scrutiny? Will appeals be permitted? Might those of mixed parentage be treated as a fractional human being (e.g., three-fifths)? This murkiness is potentially a golden opportunity to cheat -- unruly blacks might, for example, be reclassified as "mixed race" to make the end-of-month quotas. More likely, educators will copy dishonest police officers who "reduce" crime by misclassifying crimes or ignoring infractions.

The only scientific solution is DNA analysis according to federally set criteria, and each student might be required to wear a bar-coded racial identity card to be scanned prior to punishment: a twenty-first-century Yellow Star. Don't laugh -- my alma mater, Teaneck HS, Teaneck, NJ, now issues bar-coded identity cards, and hall monitors carry hand-held card readers to access student information and record infractions. Supermarket checkout lane justice. How efficient.

But this newly imposed administrative responsibility is minor compared to the awaiting disciplinary-related chaos. What if a school, perhaps under court order, is forced (or volunteers) to admit large numbers of black students prone to disruptive behavior? Or, equally likely, a shrinking black population means fewer schools in black neighborhoods, so these students must now enroll in more peaceful "white" schools. Under the Obama administration's definition of "racial fairness," this influx can only exacerbate already difficult situations.

Rest assured: even the dimmest students will figure out how to game the system. Savvy gang-bangers might rationally wait until the month's end to settle scores if their ethnic/racial group has already reached their quota of actionable offenses. Conversely, the well-behaved from a different racial/ethnic group might prudently stay home during this period since they know that if a gang-banger were expelled, they, too, might be sent home for minor infractions so as to sustain proportionality.  

More generally, discipline by racial quota weakens administrative discretion, and this can only undermine the school's ability to maintain a safe atmosphere vital for learning. Moreover, the fewer the punishments, the easier it is to adjust the numbers to achieve racial fairness, so just relax standards altogether. Ironically, administrators will enjoy the most disciplinary freedom in racially homogeneous schools, and one might guess that racial segregation would increase as schools discipline students only by the numbers. The big winners will be private schools exempt from Justice Department oversight.

There is more here, however, than just foolishness. This policy clearly panders to blacks, the sole demographic group  not yet disenchanted with the president. Arne Duncan even announced it on the 45th anniversary of the famous Birmingham, AL "Blood Sunday" civil rights march.

But, rhetoric aside, the measure will undermine education for many education-hungry blacks in racially mixed schools by subverting school discipline. To be impolite, given a choice of helping blacks versus draping a destructive policy in feel-good historical rhetoric, Obama elects the anti-education option. This sin is inexcusable -- a sign of moral depravity, not just inept policy-making.

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad