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Lawmakers Question Federal Guidance, Call Discipline a Local Issue

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This is a cross post from Alyson Klein at Politics K-12.

The Obama administration's recent school discipline guidance—which seeks to crack down on racial disparities in school punishments—has a laudable goal, but decisions about how to deal with student behavior are best left to officials at the local level, wrote four House Republicans in a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder this week.

The Feb. 12 letter was signed by Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, and Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the chairman of the panel that oversees K-12 policy, among others. It echoes many of the criticisms education associations—including the National School Boards Association and the American Federation of Teachers—have levied against the Obama administration's guidance. (Much more in this story.)

While advocates—and the lawmakers—say they support the aim of reducing disparities in the severity of punishments for students of different races, the lawmakers argue that the federal government isn't in the best position to solve the problem.

Here's a snippet from the letter, which was also signed by Reps. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., and Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.:

Opposing discrimination is a shared goal. However, recognizing the complexity of school discipline policies, we believe such policies are best handled by the teachers, state officials, and local school leaders who are most equipped to assess the needs of individual students and the school community as a whole. ... Teachers and school officials must have the flexibility to assess the situation and enforce the discipline policies fairly to promote school safety and address inappropriate behavior.

The letter goes on to explain that associations representing districts are working on their own to solve the problem. For example, it notes that NSBA recently released a report highlighting examples of promising school discipline practices.

The lawmakers also write that they're dismayed the federal guidance "provides examples of what the department might find discriminatory, even when policies have been applied fairly and equally to all students." They say that could "have a chilling effect on teachers and school leaders working to address discipline issues with students; potentially leading to unruly and unsafe classrooms that could adversely effect student learning."

Quick background: Last month, the Obama administration took the unusual step of issuing discipline guidance encouraging school districts to craft rules and discipline policies that are fair to students from all backgrounds and to think carefully about so-called "zero-tolerance" policies that federal officials said have led to high rates of suspensions and expulsions, particularly among minority students.

For instance, black students represented just 15 percent of students in national data collected by the Education Department's office for civil rights in 2012. But they made up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students expelled, according to Duncan.

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