Mike Petrilli and I had an interesting email conversation about his article about school discipline. Here's the beginning: Last week, I participated in a New York Times forum on school discipline and charter schools. I madewhat I thought was the obvious, common-sense—almost banal—case that:
We need to prioritize the needs of the vast majority of children — the ones who come to school wanting to learn. Yet the needs of these students are often overlooked in today's debates, as some advocates focus narrowly on the consequences for disruptive kids. To be sure, we should worry about the "school to prison pipeline," and shouldn't suspend or expel students any more frequently than necessary. But we also shouldn't allow disruptive students to hold their classrooms hostage. That's true for all public schools, charter or otherwise.
So I was surprised by the vehement reaction on social media and in the blogosphere by some folks on the left.
But, upon reflection, this angry pushback is understandable, because I was challenging the very thing that makes a liberal a liberal: an unwavering commitment to equality, universality and, if not identical treatment of everyone, then particularly supportive handling of those who face extraordinary challenges—for surely those challenges are not of their own making. Kids who misbehave in school are, in this view, victims, not perpetrators.
Here was our email exchange (shared with his permission):
Mike: Hi Whitney. FYI. Honestly I think you've shown some sloppy thinking on this front too...
Me: "If you want traditional public schools to thrive, allow them to employ reasonable discipline policies that will create environments conducive to learning—including the responsible use of suspension, expulsion, and alternative schools."
I agree with this. But do you doubt for a moment that – as in our judicial system – these policies (which, by their nature, are highly subjective) are applied unequally? That bad behavior by poor and/or black and/or brown kids is treated FAR more harshly, on average, than identical behavior for rich/white/Asian kids?
Mike: I believe that happens in some schools, and that's discrimination, and should be prosecuted. But under Arne, OCR now is using "disparate impact theory" which says that EVEN if the school has a race neutral policy--AND APPLIES IT EVENLY--they can be considered discriminatory if minorities are disciplined at higher rates.
As with crime, the "disparate" rates can partly be explained by racism and discrimination, but partly by other background factors (higher rates of poverty among minorities, higher rates of single parent families, lower rates of educated parents, etc. etc.).
And we can't tell from statistics alone which it is...
Me: "OCR now is using "disparate impact theory" which says that EVEN if the school has a race neutral policy--AND APPLIES IT EVENLY--they can be considered discriminatory if minorities are disciplined at higher rates."
As for how much of the disparate impact is fair/warranted vs. racist/discriminatory, I'd guess (and it's a total guess) it's 80/20 – but 20% is still WAY too high. (Incidentally, I'd have the same guess for our judicial system.)
Mike: Yup, that guess (for both systems) sounds about right to me.