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Betsy DeVos wants to end program designed to reduce racial bias in school discipline

A GAO study shows black students are disciplined more often and more harshly than white peers

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos discussed rescinding an Obama-era guidance addressing racial bias in school discipline Wednesday — but Congress’s own nonpartisan watchdog agency just released a report that shows black students continue to be disciplined at school more often and more harshly than their white peers.

The Government Accountability Office released a report on Wednesday that shows black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students but represented almost 40 percent of student suspensions — that’s an overrepresentation of 23 percent, the report noted, undermining claims that the guidance put needless focus on students of color. This trend persisted regardless of the socioeconomic status of the school.


But at a Wednesday meeting with civil rights leaders, parents, and teachers, DeVos discussed rescinding the guidance, which warns schools that they could be in violation of federal civil rights laws if they disproportionately discipline some groups of students at higher rates than others, and encourages schools to keep kids in the classroom instead of suspending them.

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All of the civil rights groups who were involved with Wednesday’s meeting were strongly in favor of keeping the guidance, which calls on schools to consider whether racial bias plays a role in who gets disciplined and how. DeVos and other critics question say the guidance hurts students who are trying to learn by keeping disruptive children in the classroom.

The report also found that students with disabilities were disciplined at higher rates, although DeVos did not include a single advocacy group for disabled students at the Wednesday meeting.

The GAO found that students who experience suspensions and other forms of discipline that remove them from the classroom are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the criminal justice system, one of the reasons the Obama administration introduced the guidance in 2014. These kinds of disruptions result in added costs to society, the report shows, including incarceration and lost tax revenue.


The guidance came under renewed scrutiny after the mass school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in which conservative leaders argued the lax discipline policies allowed the shooter’s behavior to go unchecked. But the GAO found that the guidance didn’t result in a decline in school safety. In response to the shooting, DeVos created the Federal Commission on School Safety, which also met on Wednesday to discuss rescinding the guidance.

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The Education Department did not release a response to the GAO’s findings, but they did release a report supporting the guidance in 2016.

While DeVos has been reportedly considering rescinding the guidance for some time, she has not publicly stated her support or opposition to the guidance. However, at a congressional hearing last month, Devos argued that her agency was re-examining the guidance for good reason.

“The stated goal of the guidance is one that we all embrace and we are committed to reviewing and considering this guidance and taking appropriate steps,” she said. “But I have nothing to say at this point about where that is.”

Cover image: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)