Some rather distressing, though hardly surprising, developments in our public schools were reported recently by our libertarian friends at reason.com. It seems the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) have decided it is time to reduce “the nonviolent suspension gap.” What is that, you may ask? It seems more African-American and Hispanic students are being suspended from Minneapolis schools for nonviolent offenses than white students, in proportion to their numbers within the system. And this is something MPS Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson—and, of course, the Obama Education Department—will not tolerate.
It seems clear, judging from countless stories in the press about elementary school kids being sent home for hugs, kisses on the cheek, and the occasional drawing or bread product that looks like it might be a gun, that far too many children are being suspended under “zero tolerance” regulations passed to mollify ideological nitwits who have no idea what actual children are like. This makes attention to such suspensions a potential “good thing.” Of course, one might expect there to be some sort of investigation from the Justice Department concerning whether racial bias is to blame for the disparities tabulated in terms of race; under this administration in particular there also would be justifiable fear of a politically-correct witch hunt.
No such fear, here, for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has already “investigated,” spoken, and come to an agreement with MPS. As a result, MPS will act by simple administrative fiat. The policy statement can be found here. In it, Ms. Johnson is clear on what must be done:
MPS must aggressively reduce the disproportionality between black and brown students and their white peers every year for the next four years. This will begin with a 25 percent reduction in disproportionality by the end of this school year; 50 percent by 2016; 75 percent by 2017; and 100 percent by 2018.
Wow. So, in conformance with the Education Department’s discretionary dictates (read, commands rooted in their own ideological convictions), MPS has decided that it is necessary, acceptable, and in accordance with common sense to simply decree a four-year program to eliminate inequality in one specific, rather narrow policy area. And not just any policy area, but that of school discipline, in which the school system acts as a first-responder to potential problems in the homes and upbringing of children. I am not familiar with the specific income, educational, and other characteristics of parents in the Minneapolis Public Schools, but might it not be just barely possible that there are disparities in such characteristics among varying racial groups, perhaps having some kind of impact on the behavior patterns of students? Might these characteristics not account for some of the disparity? And, pardon a conservative for saying so, but are not good liberal educators like Ms. Johnson supposed to be calling for responses from various public welfare agencies (including educators) to eliminate these disparities by getting at their “root causes?”
Ah, but I am behind the times. These days, such concerns themselves are likely to be deemed racist, classist, and so on because they assume that there is a “right” way to raise kids and that disparities in various outcomes—in regard to punishments in particular—might be based in something other than racism.
The Obama Administration and Ms. Johnson obviously are more progressive than that. So, in order to eliminate the disparity they have concocted, shall we say a more direct solution—in effect, suspension quotas. And how will such a policy be implemented? In the words of the MPS:
Moving forward, every suspension of a black or brown student will be reviewed by the superintendent’s leadership team. The school district aims to more deeply understand the circumstances of suspensions with the goal of providing greater supports to the school, student or family in need. This team could choose to bring in additional resources for the student, family and school.
Now, you may say that Ms. Johnson is, in fact, acting on the older progressive vision that the answer to disciplinary problems is to throw government money and personnel at the kid and his or her family. But the twist is neither subtle nor small. The trigger for extra process and extra intervention is a simple matter of race and there is a simple demand for, in essence, disciplinary quotas, with suspensions doled out according to the race of the student. Kids of one race will be suspended as usual, kids of specific other racial backgrounds will be “diverted” into another social welfare program.
There is a small problem with this reformulation of due process: it is in clear violation of the rights of all students, including whites, Asians, and frankly “black and brown” students whose parents may prefer equal treatment under a rational program to infinitely buzzing bureaucrats. And, lest we forget, the policy outcome decreed for the program is simple, proportional equality. The results must be the same, regardless of other circumstances, as measured by race.
As Judge Richard Posner argued in People Who Care v. Rockford Board of Education, in which a similar provision was struck down:
Racial disciplinary quotas violate equity in its root sense. They entail either systematically overpunishing the innocent or systematically underpunishing the guilty. They place race at war with justice. They teach schoolchildren an unedifying lesson of racial entitlements. And they incidentally are inconsistent with [the requirement] that discipline be administered without regard to race or ethnicity.
Judge Posner is hardly the poster child for conservative policy or jurisprudence. But in this decision he recognized a fact with which the Obama Administration and an increasing number of our public institutions have been at war: fairness does not mean and is in fact undermined by policies that demand equal outcomes. Quotas of whatever sort treat people as numbers, distribute benefits, costs, and punishments according to status rather than conduct, and breed debilitating expectations. And these expectations in turn affect personal behavior and the legitimacy of fundamental social institutions.
The ideals of due process of law and equal protection of those laws speak, not to equal outcomes, but to equal treatment. To the extent that administrators, whether in Washington, D.C., or in Minneapolis, warp procedures to achieve particular ends, they undermine the legitimacy of the law itself, and of our republican form of government. This means that dealing with “disparities” in various outcomes must be done through the institutions of civil society, properly separated from the requirements of law. It is sad that our schools are so mired in problems of discipline and even criminal conduct that such issues are so important to us. But in all issues of discipline and punishment, fairness and legitimacy is by nature a matter of making the procedure and the protections of the law fully equal—and leaving considerations of underlying causes to other, civil institutions in our society. That means equal treatment according to the infraction, not the color of one’s skin.
It may take a village to raise a child, but a public school is not a village; it is, sadly, an arm of the state and so should be run according to law, not various bizarre theories of social equity.
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