n April 4th headline in the New York Times was eye-catching: “Government Watchdog Finds Racial Bias in School Discipline.” Eye-catching, but highly misleading. The Government Accountability Office report, which was commissioned by congressmen Bobby Scott (D., Va.) and Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.), found only what we’ve known for a long time — that African-American students are disciplined at higher rates than white students. Buried in a footnote, the GAO report concedes that disparities by themselves “should not be used to make conclusions about the presence or absence of unlawful discrimination.”
The fact that concession was relegated to a footnote is not the only reason to doubt the GAO’s good faith. Education secretary Betsy DeVos is currently considering whether to withdraw the Obama administration’s controversial “Dear Colleague” letter on school discipline. That letter told schools that their federal funding can be cut off if they discipline African-American students at higher rates than white students, even if the difference is the result of the evenhanded administration of their disciplinary code. The GAO report was released to great fanfare on the same day that DeVos met with interested parties on both sides of the issue. The timing suggests GAO officials may have been all too happy to upstage DeVos.
Here’s what the GAO didn’t disclose: The major reason for the disparity is clear, and it isn’t bias. As painful as it may be to admit, African-American students, on average, misbehave more than their white counterparts. Teachers (including African-American teachers) aren’t making this up, and it isn’t doing African-American students any favors to suggest otherwise.
Just recently, the National Center for Education Statistics released a report showing that African-American students self-report being in physical fights on school property at a rate more than twice that of white students. Similarly, California’s former attorney general (and current senator) Kamala Harris reported in 2014 that African-American fifth-graders are almost five times more likely than whites to be chronically truant. In addition, as the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald has reported, African-American male teenagers from ages 14-17 commit homicide at nearly ten times the rate of their white male counterparts. Why should anyone assume that rates of misbehavior in school would magically come out equal?
Too many of our leaders like to preen themselves, claiming that they can’t imagine why teachers would disproportionately discipline African-American students unless the reason is racial discrimination. But denying the facts doesn’t help African-American students. The primary victims of the Obama administration’s effort to federalize school-discipline policy are African-American students attending majority-minority schools who are struggling to learn amid increasing classroom disorder.
Why causes these differences in behavior? The short answer is that nobody can explain it perfectly. But common sense suggests, and reams of research show, that children from fatherless households as well as children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to get in trouble than other students. That’s at least a large part of the explanation.
The GAO tries to cast doubt on that by arguing that even in schools in prosperous neighborhoods, African-American students are disciplined at higher rates than whites. But the fact that a school is in a relatively prosperous locality doesn’t mean that the African-American students attending it are as well-off as their fellow students.