WILL Response to Milwaukee Public Schools

Last week, WILL, along with other conservative leaders across the country, sent a letter to US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, urging her to rescind an Obama-era “Dear Colleague” letter on K-12 school suspension. In short, the Obama policy, which is still being enforced by DeVos, tells districts to reduce the racial disparity in their suspension rates, all under the threat of a lawsuit. We describe how the policy is not only hurting academic performance and safety in Wisconsin’s public schools, but is an unlawful overreach by the federal government.

Yet Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) issued a response, calling our letter “misleading” and criticizing our research. Their response indicates three things. One, they didn’t fully read our letter to DeVos. Two, they expect people to believe someone can “voluntarily” enter into an agreement with the United States government when the feds are threatening a lawsuit. Three, it doesn’t matter in the end because MPS seems content to have softer discipline policies.

First, our letter to DeVos (as described in NRO) called the Obama-era “Dear Colleague” letter an “illegal exercise of federal administrative power and an unjustified intrusion into state and local matters.’  As WILL President Rick Esenberg told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Our concern is that the federal government is imposing a requirement on school districts that is not in the law and is usurping the ability of local school districts to make their own policy.”

In other words, when it comes to enacting discipline policies, we are in favor of giving more power to local school districts – like MPS! – and taking it away from the federal government, i.e. bureaucrats in Washington D.C.

Even in these polarized times, one would think that MPS would agree with us on that. Apparently not.

Second, MPS’ statement that they “voluntarily” entered into a resolution with the Department of Education isn’t what it told the public.  For those that forgot, the Obama Administration opened a federal investigation into the discipline policies of Milwaukee Public Schools, accusing it of discrimination and suspending black children more frequently than non-black children. In January 2018, MPS Superintendent Driver entered into a “resolution agreement” with the Department of Education. Describing the decision to enter into this resolution agreement, Superintendent Driver told the Journal Sentinel that “we have to. It’s not optional.”

But there’s more to it than that. Decisions to enter into agreements like this are group decisions that do not happen in a vacuum. When the government threatens to sue, those who advocate policies that would take the threat away – say backing off on discipline or meting it out such that racial numbers “look good” – are going to have the upper hand. It is always possible that a person accosted by an armed robber might have nevertheless decided to hand her wallet as a gift. But we’d be more certain about that had no gun been pulled in the first place.

Lastly, while we believe local school districts should fight for more control over their children’s education, we recognize that there is no guarantee that they will choose good ones.  MPS may be a case in point. It has been moving towards softer discipline policies, despite complaints by teachers and children of school safety (read the Dan O’Donnell piece).

When confronted with a WILL study that shows how softer discipline policies (aka PBIS) can lead to lower student academic performance, MPS dismissed the findings, saying the test scores were low “because the state Department of Public Instruction raised its bar for what constitutes proficiency in 2013.” It’s too bad MPS didn’t read our full study (found here) because we accounted for these changes in testing. Even with this and other controls, academic outcomes were lower for PBIS-implementing schools not just in Milwaukee, but around the state.

Putting aside test scores, the chart below indicates a steady decline in MPS suspension rates in the last 10 years.

Recent news suggests that MPS is considering removing the requirement that police be called when “criminal activity is suspected at school.” A school might reasonably be seen as a kind as a kind sanctuary from a difficult home life or a tough neighborhood, but not for criminal behavior. When schools are beset with crime, it is the teaching staff and the overwhelming majority of law abiding kids who just want to learn who will suffer.

Of course policies must be implemented in a way that is neutral to race. But the overall trend towards suspending fewer children is a major mistake by MPS. Our studies have shown that school safety is a prime motivator for parent’s decisions in choosing a school and, according to a report by School Choice Wisconsin, more “911” come from Milwaukee Public Schools than private schools in the parental choice program.

We don’t point this out to criticize MPS but to stand up for Milwaukee’s kids. While there is research that purports to show a correlation between school discipline and poor outcomes later in life, other research suggests that the former does not cause the latter. Rather, it is the underlying student behavior – and whatever sources contribute to it – that causes both. Declining to discipline kids who need it does not help them or those around them.

MPS is free to pursue these policies that we have found have negative effects. But they should be prepared to accept full responsibility for the consequences. Secretary DeVos should spare other schools this fate by letting them choose the best policies for them.

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