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Suspending Students Costs Billions in Economic Losses, New Study Finds

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A growing cadre of public policy researchers and lawmakers agree that school discipline rates remain high for black and Hispanic students, and those with disabilities, but a new study from the University of California takes it a step further by connecting suspension rates to major economic impacts.

Researchers found that suspensions lead to lower graduation rates, which in turn leads to lower tax revenue and higher taxpayer costs for criminal justice and social services. The researchers followed a single cohort of California 10th grade students through high school for three years and found that those who were suspended had only a 60 percent graduation rate—compared to an 83 percent graduation rate for students who were not suspended.

The result: An economic loss of $2.7 billion over the lifetime of that single cohort of dropouts who left school because they were suspended, researchers found.

CAsuspensionrates.jpg

The study—"The Hidden Cost of California's Harsh School Discipline: And the Localized Economic Benefits From Suspending Fewer High School Students"—calculates the financial consequences of suspending students in each California school district with more than 100 students, and for the state as a whole. The study was done by Russell W. Rumberger, the director of the California Dropout Research Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Daniel J. Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Here's the breakdown of Rumberger and Losen's $2.7 billion finding:

  • $809 million in direct costs to taxpayers for dropouts' use of the criminal justice system and paying fewer taxes
  • $1.9 billion in social costs, such as decreased productivity in the workforce and higher health care expenses

In the cohort of 10th graders they analyed and after controlling for other predictors of dropping out, the researchers found that 4,621 students dropped out of school because they were suspended. Just one of those non-graduates generates $579,820 in economic losses over their lifetime, Rumberger and Losen found. In California's largest district—Los Angeles Unified—they estimated economic losses due to suspensions to be nearly $150 million.

"It's tragic, it's bad economics, and it's entirely avoidable," Rumberger said in a press release accompanying the study's release.

Much of the school discipline debate—ignited by a 2011 study in Texas that found students who are black, Latino, have special needs, and/or identify as LGBT are suspended at disproportionately high rates—still centers around race, which figured into the UC study on California students. For example, 29.2 percent of black students in the 10th grade cohort were suspended, more than twice the statewide average of 14.9 percent.

The UC researchers used California Department of Education data from the 2011-12 school year, constructing a three-year longitudinal file that took out students who left the school systems for valid reasons such as death or transferring to private school.

Researchers acknowledge there were some limitations and stress the report is not a "cost-benefit" analysis in the tradeoffs of suspending or not suspending students, but overall their analysis should dispel "the common misconception that suspensions are 'cost-free' responses to misbehavior."

The research was funded through a grant from The California Endowment, with assistance from Clive Belfield and Atlantic Philanthropies. The data set for each California school district with over 100 students, and a state aggregate, can be downloaded here.

Rumberger and Losen noted that California's suspension rates overall have declined in the past three years. Losen praised the state for designating school discipline as one of the key accountability factors it will use to meet federal requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and bolstering its commitment to evidence-based alternatives to suspensions, such as restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, or PBIS.

Still, the researchers said suspensions are still overused in California and that district leaders and educators must do more to further reduce them, especially for special education students, blacks, and Hispanics.

"It is imperative to address," Rumberger said.

Photo: Screenshot of UC study chart

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