Will the U.S. Department of Education back pedal on another key education civil rights action of the Obama administration?
As the agency reversed Obama-era civil rights policies—those related to issues like sexual assault, systemic investigations, and transgender students—policy watchers have wondered if it will next withdraw or alter 2014 guidance on racial disparities in school discipline.
That guidance, which was long anticipated by civil rights groups before it was released, put schools on notice that discipline rates that are disproportionately high for students in one race could trigger a civil rights investigation, even if the school’s policies weren’t written with discriminatory intent. For example, if a school suspends black students at higher rates than their peers, federal officials might explore data to see if they are facing harsher punishments for the same rule violations compared to their peers.
Supporters of that move said it would help to slow the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term they use to describe overly punitive discipline policies that research links to negative outcomes for students.
But critics said the guidance amounted to putting “racial quotas” on school discipline and that it had a chilling effect, causing schools to avoid disciplining students for some behaviors.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has regularly criticized the Obama administration’s aggressive approach to civil rights enforcement, referring to it as “the era of rule by letter.”
Now, DeVos plans to hire an outspoken critic of the discipline guidance to work in the the department’s office of general counsel, according to a Politico report. That reported hire, Hans Bader, previously served as a senior attorney for the Competitive Enterprise Insitute. He’s written numerous opinion pieces and letters to the editor at major newspapers on the Obama education department’s approach to discipline.
Higher suspension rates for black students “reflect higher rates of misbehavior among blacks, not zero-tolerance policies,” Bader wrote in a 2014 opinion piece in the Daily Caller.
That’s a claim that many school discipline researchers dispute.
Is Bader’s hiring a signal that the discipline guidance will be changed? Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, seems to think so.