By Dr. Will Flanders and Natalie Goodnow

On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty issued a new report, Feds in the Classroom: The Impact of the Obama Administration’s Discipline Policy on Wisconsin’s Public SchoolsThe results reveal that federal actions to change discipline policies led to suspension rates plummeting in Wisconsin public schools. But all is not positive. The policy changes appear to have had a negative effect on student safety while not closing the gap in suspension rates between white and African American students.

In 2011, the Obama Administration began to focus on differential suspension rates between white students and minority students. While the scholarly evidence is divided on whether differences in suspension rates are due to race or actual behavioral differences, the administration came down squarely on the side of there being a significant problem with suspensions based on student race. 

The Justice and Education Departments issued guidance to, and threatened investigation of, state and local school officials to force changes in schools suspension policies in order to combat racial discrimination. The guidance goes beyond overt racial biases in policies stating that unlawful discrimination can also occur if “a policy is neutral on its face – meaning that the policy itself does not mention race – and is administered in an evenhanded manner but has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race. In other words, a policy might be constructed without any racial animus whatsoever but would still be problematic in the eyes of the Justice Department if more minority kids were found in violation of the policy.  The state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) responded to these threats by increasing the use of positive behavioral enforcement in lieu of punishment for misbehavior.

Our research builds on the previous work of Dan O’Donnell and Wisconsin Policy Research Institute to provide the most comprehensive analysis of the impact of these policies to date. 

Bringing to bear statewide data on suspensions from the Department of Public Instruction, we conclude the following:

  • Since 2007-2008, suspensions in Wisconsin’s K-12 public schools have declined by about 41%.
  • As the suspension rate has declined, concerns over school climate and school safety have begun to rise. Surveys and polls from teachers show that changes to suspension and discipline policies are leaving teachers unsatisfied and even fearful.
  • Despite what the Obama Administration claims, our study shows that in Wisconsin’s largest school districts – Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Madison – factors other than race (poverty, disability) are the primary factors in determining whether a child is suspended. This is yet another example of why Washington D.C. should not get involved in local school district issues.
  • Even still, the data shows that the racial disparity of suspensions – the point of the Obama Administration actions – has not closed at Milwaukee Public Schools.

Policymakers, school leaders, and parents ought to rely on good data, not just good intentions, when evaluating the effectiveness of a given policy. The changes made with regard to discipline and suspension policies in Wisconsin schools have not had the intended effect and may be contributing to negative changes in school culture.

There is progress being made at the state level to overcome the problems created by DPI and the Obama Administration with respect to discipline. Republican Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt of Fond Du Lac, a former teacher, is working to improve the situation in schools through the proposal of a new bill which has not yet been formally introduced. Among other things, this bill would empower teachers to remove problem students for a short time from the classroom without necessitating a formal suspension, which school administrators are increasingly hesitant to impose.

But more could be done if the yoke of federal intercession was taken off the backs of Wisconsin schools. We call on Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to rescind the 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter and work to empower state and local officials to make decisions about discipline policies affecting their students and schools.

Dr. Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
Natalie Goodnow is a research fellow with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.