Thursday, August 01, 2019

Civil Rights Panel Wants to Bring Back Obama’s Race-Based School Discipline Policies. Bad Idea.

Washington late last year reversed a policy that was micromanaging the way teachers and principals kept order in classrooms. Now, a federal commission wants to limit local educators’ control again.

In December, the U.S. Department of Education and the Justice Department rescinded federal directives that said Washington would investigate schools based on the number of times teachers and principals suspended or expelled minority students—even if the offending students had committed violence. A school could have lost federal funding as a result.

The rules came from a 2014 Obama administration letter sent to districts around the country instructing educators to limit such punishments, even if a student was a danger to his or her peers.

This 2014 letter mirrored the ideas from Broward County, Florida, where the school district limited suspensions and expulsions—and created a bureaucratic mess.

The accused February 2018 shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School slipped through the school district’s discipline program. In middle school, educators referred the accused shooter to Broward County’s program, a set of interventions designed to “reduce student arrests.” But the district admitted last May that administrators have no record of what, if anything, was completed.

Following the tragic deaths of 17 students, faculty, and staff and the wounding of 17 others at the Parkland, Florida, school, Broward school officials have faced scrutiny for their handling of the shooting. Then-Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel and several deputies were fired in connection with the disaster.

Over the years, as other district administrators followed federal guidance and limited student discipline, teachers reported feeling less safe in school and increased levels of harmful student behavior, as reported by the Manhattan Institute.

Studies from Florida and Philadelphia have found that leaving disruptive students in the classroom is related to negative academic outcomes for the peers of the offending students.

But in 2018, after the Broward County tragedy, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos led the Federal Commission on School Safety, which conducted hearings around the country seeking input from educators. The commission released a report containing best practices from local schools on safety, mental health, and student discipline.

The final report also called for the rescission of the 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter, and the departments of Education and Justice followed the recommendation.

The Federal Commission on School Safety explained its recommendation in the final report:

The [2014 Obama administration] Guidance sent the unfortunate message that the federal government, rather than teachers and local administrators, best handles school discipline.

As a result, fearful of potential investigations, some school districts may have driven their discipline policies and practices more by numbers than by teacher input.

In a report released Tuesday, however, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced it had voted in favor of federal monitoring of school suspensions and expulsions, and criticized the use of exclusionary discipline.

The commission praised the 2014 guidance, saying the “Dear Colleague” letter “provided schools with important information about what the law is and how to address school discipline problems in a nondiscriminatory way.”

The Civil Rights Commission claims the guidance was just “detailed information about what the law is,” but the 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter sounded like Washington was looking for reasons to investigate.

The letter said schools should use “exclusionary discipline as a last resort” and contained an appendix with specific methods of data collection related to student discipline, restorative justice practices, and collaboration with law enforcement.

The commission’s recommendations would take a school’s focus off of school safety and student success in exchange for counting how many students of a particular race are disciplined, even if the students did something to warrant suspension.

The civil rights panel’s recommendations also suggest that federal agents should be more involved in local decision-making, taking authority away from parents, teachers, and school principals.

Parents and teachers know that all children are different and that situations involving punishment must be handled differently, specific to the circumstances.

In her dissent from the Civil Rights Commission’s recommendations, commission member Gail Heriot said that in schools with majority-minority student enrollment, “if teachers fail to keep order in those classrooms out of fear that they will be accused of racism, it is these minority students who will suffer the most.”

No children should be disciplined just because of the color of their skin. But the commission’s deference to the Obama administration’s heavy-handed letter favors bureaucrats over you and your child’s teachers.

DeVos and federal officials made the right decision last December in rescinding the Obama-era guidance. Parents and teachers, not federal bureaucrats, should make decisions about student safety.


Is a College Degree Necessary? A Tale of Three Students

Richard Vedder 
Permit me some reflection based on a 54 year lifetime of teaching maybe 12,000 students, mostly at Ohio University. The question du jour: does a college degree really prepare students to achieve lifetime vocational success and happiness? Let’s look at three former students to perhaps gain some insight into that question.

Sam Chamberlain is at the pinnacle of success in his career as chief operating officer at Five Guys, burger specialists supreme. Graduating with an economics degree in the early 1990s, Sam was a good but not spectacular student, but one showing leadership outside the classroom through his fraternity and in track and cross country. His work in economic history with me arguably made near zero practical contribution to his later success.

College, however, helped Sam learn leadership and communication skills, and his economics training gave him some valuable understanding of the business milieu, but he very likely could have developed most of those skills making his vocational life successful without a college degree. College was a screening device helping get him to get the critical first job and that, along with networking, propelled him forward. When we reconnected years later we bonded instantly, reflecting Sam’s magnetic nice guy personality more than the recognition of skills derived while in school.

Matthew Denhart is in his early thirties and similarly majored in economics. Matt was a superb student also with leadership qualities; he spoke at his college commencement. He is kind, thoughtful, friendly, fun, hardworking and exudes integrity. I hired him to work for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity after graduation, and later helped him land a job with a friend, journalist and writer Amity Shlaes, which, in turn, led ultimately to his becoming the president of the Calvin Coolidge Foundation and being named by Forbes to its 30 under 30 list of outstanding young Americans.

Yet very little of what Matt learned in his courses in college had any direct application to his career. He learned the really critical keys to success from his parents—the importance of hard work, discipline, faith (regular church attendance), honesty, kindness and friendship. Hopefully, working for me he learned a few things (e.g., using time wisely, dealing with difficult people, writing clear sentences, etc.), but Matt’s college teachers truly were ancillary to his vocational success. One thing college did: he found his wife Andrea there, and she has given him a daughter as well. There’s more to life than work.

Jacob Salter graduated in May with a degree in civil engineering and has just started his first real job, which he loves, in the Detroit area. In Jacob’s case, college training was critical to his success. He learned many technical concepts allowing him, for example, to build bridges or assess the efficacy of different building materials used in constructing buildings or roads. Jacob, like probably a minority of students, can say that his college training was critical to achieving a satisfactory vocational outcome. But like many students, Jacob owes much of his early success to his family, who imbued in him the need for discipline and faith in life (I met Jacob at church, not class).

In many cases, the residential nature of college is key to most of the collegiate contribution to student success—interactions with other students and faculty, partying, sports, etc. Away from home, students are forced to grow up a bit faster. They get good lessons in social interaction and communication -the key to vocational success. Students getting online degrees miss that as do, to some extent, students living at home and commuting to campus.

Bryan Caplan and others are right: college is largely a signaling/screening device; college degrees help employers narrow their search for productive workers dramatically. Sam and Matt are examples of that, while Jacob did learn useful job skills.

There are other ways, such as having a National College Equivalence Test, that could help evaluate the smarts and human capital of young people and do much-needed screening—at a vastly lower cost. However, and here Harvard and other elite schools may have a point with their “holistic” admissions procedures, the not strictly academic dimensions of colleges help prepare students for meaningful adult lives—albeit at a huge cost.


Lack of Funding Is Not What Ails American Schools

Money matters, but not if it’s simply tossed into a dysfunctional district.

Last month, researchers from Johns Hopkins University published a heartbreaking study describing the conditions of public schools in Providence, R.I. The report contained a laundry list of problems that plague America’s public schools, such as the inability to fire bad teachers and discipline unruly students, and the need for massive reams of bureaucratic paperwork to get anything done at all.

Here’s what wasn’t a problem: lack of funding. Providence spends $17,192 per pupil every year.

But to hear progressive politicians and advocates tell of it, insufficient spending is the only problem with public education. For example, in his “Thurgood Marshall Plan,” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders declared that schools have seen “savage” budget cuts, teachers are paid “starvation wages,” and schoolhouses are “crumbling.”

This could not be further from the truth. The fact is that America spends more on education than any other major developed nation. In 2015, the latest year for which Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data is available, the United States spent a combined $12,800 on primary and secondary education, significantly higher than Germany ($11,100), France ($10,000), Italy ($9,100), and Spain ($8,300).

American education spending has risen steadily and dramatically for decades, nearly tripling from 1966 to 2016 after adjusting for inflation. Although education spending took a hit during the Great Recession, it has been climbing steadily over the past five years and is at an all-time high in most states.

Despite the substantial increase in spending, there are still some schools – like those described in the Providence report – that are in rough physical shape. But they are the exception, not the rule. Even among schools serving a high share of students in poverty, only 4 percent are rated to be in poor shape. What’s more, contrary to stories of overcrowded classrooms, schools have been getting ever more spacious. Between 1995 and 2014, space increased by 30 square feet per high-school student (a 20 percent increase), 45 square feet per middle-school student (35 percent), and 80 square feet per elementary-school student (74 percent).

And although teachers in some states have ample cause to be unhappy about their paychecks, teachers are not – by and large – underpaid. Democratic presidential candidates such as Kamala Harris have touted a report from the Economic Policy Institute claiming that teachers are “underpaid” by 21 percent. But Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine have noted that by the same methodology, which considers educational attainment but ignores supply and demand, aerospace engineers are “overpaid” by 38 percent and telemarketers are “underpaid” by 25 percent.

A better way to assess the question of teacher pay, they suggest, would be to look at how individual compensation changes when professionals switch between teaching and the private sector; they find that transferring from the private sector into teaching is associated with an 8 percent salary increase, while leaving teaching for the private sector is associated with a 3 percent salary decrease.

However, teachers have a legitimate gripe that ever-expanding taxpayer largesse has not made its way proportionally into their paychecks. Professor Ben Scafidi has noted the rise in non-teaching staff, and calculated that if the share of non-teachers to students had stayed constant from 1992 to 2014, the money saved could have provided every American teacher with an additional $11,128 in compensation.

School-spending advocates also peddle the narrative that public-school financing is regressive. For example, former vice president Joe Biden has pointed to a report by EdBuild claiming that there is a $23 billion gap between school districts that serve predominantly white students and districts that serve predominantly minority students. But that study excludes the nearly $60 billion spent on American schools by the federal government, much of which goes to districts serving high concentrations of low-income students (which are disproportionately minority).

According to a 2008 Tax Policy Center study, per-pupil spending has effectively been equalized by race within states. And according to a 2017 Urban Institute study, states spend approximately the same on poor and non-poor students. There is substantial variation in spending across states, but these differences are not correlated with differences in student achievement.

That’s not to say that money doesn’t matter at all in education. Indeed, recent, rigorous studies have overturned the conventional wisdom that increasing spending makes no difference. But as the Providence report shows us, a great deal of money can amount to very little if it’s simply tossed into a dysfunctional district.

Politicians are taking the easy way out by speaking only of spending. For the sake of America’s students, it’s time to turn our attention to devising policy solutions, not further cash infusions, to address the problems plaguing public education.


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