The Fordham Institute’s recent survey of teachers has brought the issue of discipline reform back to the forefront. But even as teachers say that discipline policies are leading to unsafe educational environments, a new federal rule threatens to further exacerbate the issue.
In the final month of the Obama Administration, the Department of Education (ED) created a new rule regarding minority students with disabilities in the United States that puts districts in a lose-lose situation. To address “significant disproportionality” in the rates of identification of disabilities and discipline policies for these students, ED required states to establish risk ratio thresholds (RRTs), a number above which a district would be found to have significant disproportionality. RRTs compare the rate of identification or discipline for minority students with disabilities with the rates for the rest of the disabled population. An RRT of 4 for suspensions, for example, would mean that disabled students in a particular racial group were four times as likely as students in all other groups of disabled students to be suspended. An RTT of 4 for identification would mean that students from a particular minority group are four times as likely to be identified as having a disability relative to other students. The consequence for a district deemed disproportionate is a loss of some federal education dollars. Under the Trump Administration, ED attempted to delay this rule to allow time to properly consider the concerns that the underlying regulation could set up an unconstitutional system of racial quotas.
The Education Department’s attempt to delay the regulation was borne out of concerns that the rule itself was unconstitutional. This is because racial quotas are unconstitutional. Thus, to the extent that the IDEA regulation creates a de facto racial quota system, it would be unconstitutional. Such quotas force exactly what the law requires them to prevent: either over-identification of one racial group or under-identification of another. Quotas rest on the assumption that differences in disciplinary outcomes for certain groups of students are based largely on racism on the part of school officials rather than recognizing the possibility that real differences in behavior may exist. The fear by many critics of the underlying “significant disproportionality” regulation is that by requiring states to establish RRTs to set specific numerical thresholds, they will incentivize those states to adopt de facto racial quota systems, as schools will need to stay under the RRT number or those states will risk losing federal education funding.