Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Obama administration isn't sitting still on the school-to-prison pipeline

One way to sit still while the machinery of racism rolls on is to ignore what is happening to black and brown children in our public schools. The truth is that as we approach the 60th anniversary of Brown vs Board of Education, we don't have a problem with public education in this country. What we have is a failure to adequately educate our black and brown children.

Former President George W. Bush found a way to sit still on this problem. After over 30 years of collecting data on racial disparities in our public schools, his administration chose to simply discontinue the practice. There wasn't much push-back to that. It was simply a matter of "what we don't see doesn't exist."

Early on in the Obama administration, that changed. The Civil Rights Office in the Department of Education began collecting the data again. And the picture wasn't pretty.
  • 55% of high schools with low black and Hispanic populations offer calculus while only 29% of schools with high minority populations do so.
  • Black and Hispanic students made up 44 percent of the students in the survey, but were only 26 percent of the students in gifted and talented programs.
  • On average, teachers in high-minority schools were paid $2,251 less per year than their colleagues elsewhere.
But the really alarming data was that black and brown students are significantly more likely to be suspended, expelled or referred to law enforcement for behavior problems in school. That's what many people have begun to call the school-to-prison pipeline for students of color.

Armed with this information, the Departments of Education and Justice set out to do something about it. For example, DoE's Civil Rights Division began investigating school districts with significant disparities in their school discipline practices. And DoJ filed suit against the school district in Meridian, MS for some of the most egregious practices in the country - leading to a consent decree. 

This week we learned that the Departments of Education and Justice released guidelines to school districts to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Attorney General Holder summed up the problem this way:
"Ordinary troublemaking can sometimes provoke responses that are overly severe, including out of school suspensions, expulsions and even referral to law enforcement and then you end up with kids that end up in police precincts instead of the principal's office," Holder said in a statement.
In no way do these guidelines suggest that schools give a pass to student misbehavior. What they do suggest is that there are alternatives to either kicking these kids out of school or criminalizing their behavior with a referral to law enforcement. And apparently, while these are simply guidelines, they will have some teeth behind them for this administration.
The recommendations are nonbinding, but, in essence, the federal government is telling school districts around the country that they should adhere to the principles of fairness and equity in student discipline or face strong action if they don't.
Beyond being an issue that is important to me personally, all of this strikes me as a significant rejoinder to those who continue to suggest that the Obama administration hasn't done much for the black community. Go into any large urban area with high concentrations of families of color and right next to a concern about violence in their community, you will hear this as the number one cause of concern. As one young activist told me recently, this is THE civil rights issue of our time. For the families affected, they see their own babies being fed to the school-to-prison pipeline and are crying out for someone to notice. That the Obama administration has done so much to tackle this problem while the media and so many progressives ignore it speaks volumes about who is sitting still while the machinery of racism rolls on.


  1. The School to Prison Pipeline is a seminal issue. It's heartbreaking that on top of the little funding these public schools are getting, that so many teachers and administrators are denying the youth of black children. Whether it's racial animosity or an overweening desire to "teach" the children not to deviate "for their own good," black children are being robbed of their childhood innocence.

    Holder is one tough angel. Perhaps, with enough reliable Democrats in the three branches of government for the next ten years, we could stop the pipeline altogether. Anyone who is alive now, and who is alive thirty years from now might get to see a great change--- a greater country--- and know that it started with how we treat out children and a black man heading the DOJ. People coming of age or born at that time might find it unreal that we lived this way for so long.

  2. This post recalls for me one of my pet peeves-the quality or lack thereof teacher training of those placed in the inner city/majority minority schools. They are paid less because many of them graduated at the bottom of their classes! Some of them hate teaching but love the security! Some of them bring an amazing amount of racial bias and animosity from their own history! The picture is not at all clear. Starting by stemming the flow of students out of the school is 1st step BUT the issues re: teacher meanness, improper use of power, parent intimation, etc. etc. Hope Atty Gen Holder will broaden his coordination with Secy Duncan.

    1. If you check out the guidelines issued by Holder and Duncan - they include quit a bit about teacher training. But frankly, there is not a whole lot of good material out there that addresses the intersection of behavior management and racism/classism.


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