Education is a civil right; it is the foundation of economic security, well-being, and democracy. Unfortunately, a recently-released survey of all public schools in the nation demonstrates the lost educational opportunity experienced by many students — especially by African Americans and students with educational disabilities.  

Thankfully, actions have been taken by the Obama administration. These actions — including promoting fair discipline practices via increased transparency in school discipline, and via historic discipline guidance to schools — promise to yield some of the most significant advances in educational civil rights in decades. 

The U.S. Department of Education survey reveals that African Americans are three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended and expelled in grades K-12. They’re also nearly twice as likely to experience multiple suspensions as preschoolers, the data shows. African-American boys in grades K-12 are suspended at over three times the rate of white boys, while African-American girls are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race/ethnicity — six times the rate of white girls. 

Illinois has higher gaps in suspension rates between African American and white students — for both boys and girls — than other states. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended and more than three times as likely to be physically restrained as students without disabilities. 

The body of research further indicates that the heightened discipline is not explained by more frequent or serious misbehavior by students of color or students with disabilities. For instance, 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions were for “non-violent offenses,” such as disrespect or uniform violation. 

This research reflects the Obama administration’s excellent work to enhance transparency in discipline practices within educational settings, enhancements for which I advocated strongly. Although the offenses may be minor, the consequences are severe. Exclusionary school discipline reduces classroom instruction and greatly increases the likelihood of grade repetition, dropping out, and involvement in juvenile justice system. Even minor discipline actions can result in approximately twice the risk of retention or dropping out. Exclusionary discipline results in long-term academic problems that undermine the civil rights of certain students and bolster the school-to-prison pipeline.

To address these educational disparities, the Obama administration in January issued in the first-ever federal-level guidance. The administration recognized that substantial racial disparities in discipline do exist. It outlined principles to understand relevant federal law, while offering resources and recommendations for schools on how to identify, avoid, and remedy discriminatory discipline. 

Importantly, the guidance clarifies that schools are responsible for discriminatory actions, whether they are intentional or appear neutral but have a disparate impact. Issuing this guidance removes the various excuses for non-action. Together, the guidance and the data can help promote positive learning environments, maximize classroom instruction, and respect for federal civil rights laws. 

Providing educators with direct supports prior to a civil rights violation will be a fundamental tool to improving educational opportunity. For this reason, I and other legislators champion bills to promote school-wide, evidenced-based disciplinary systems, such as positive behavior interventions, social and emotional learning, and restorative justice programs. 

Such programs, research shows, improve school climate, academic performance, and student attendance, as well as reduce discipline referrals, suspensions, and expulsions. 

The school-to-prison pipeline is a profound, pernicious problem in our country that undermines educational opportunities for certain students. Federal law requires that public schools educate all children, regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age. 

The Obama administration’s actions are an important step in implementing the law. 

Danny Davis represents Illinois’ 7th Congressional District 

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