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Citing Betsy DeVos's Faith, Christian Group Challenges Her Comments on Race, School Discipline

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An open letter from a faith-based education advocacy group challenges U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a devout Christian, to rethink her response to a question about race and school discipline.

The letter, written by Nicole Baker Fulgham, the founder and president of the Expectations Project, comes as DeVos considers rescinding Obama-era civil rights guidance meant to address disproportionately high rates of discipline for students of color. DeVos will meet Wednesday with supporters and critics of that guidance as she considers her next steps.

"Our scripture says we're all created in the image of God and are, therefore, of equal and immeasurable worth in the eyes of our Creator," says the letter. "So when African-American kids in our schools are treated differently than white kids we should all be able to agree this is wrong."

The Expectations Project—a DC-based Christian organization that advocates for issues like educational equity, improving neighborhood schools, and school choice—has invited supporters to sign the open letter, which it says it will "hand deliver" to the Education Department. The organization said the letter had more than 14,000 signatures Tuesday.  Fulgham posted the letter March 13, two days after DeVos was asked about higher discipline rates for black students in a 60 Minutes interview.  

"Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids," DeVos said in that interview when asked if those higher discipline rates amounted to institutional racism.

The letter does not explicitly ask DeVos to keep the current discipline guidance. Instead, it challenges her response that question:

"Research from your own Department of Education shows African-American students are three times more likely than their white peers to be expelled or suspended, and that these disparities are not explained by more frequent or serious misbehavior by students of color.  

When given the opportunity to endorse the idea that these disparities represent 'institutional racism' you declined, saying rather that 'all of this comes down to individual kids.'

Respectfully, punishing African-American and white students differently for the same behavior, in a way that is measurable across our entire system, is the very definition of institutional racism. If we don't agree with this as a first-premise, or that we have a responsibility as people of faith to address it, finding the right solution will prove difficult."

What the discipline guidance says

It's true that the Education Department's office for civil rights has found schools where black students were punished much more harshly than their white peers for the same infractions. Researchers have also found that vaguely written rules against behavior like "defiance" are sometimes subjectively applied by teachers who may more quickly label a black student's behavior as problematic, even if they don't recognize their own implicit bias.

But critics of the discipline guidance say those differing state and national discipline rates can't all be explained by differential treatment of students within the same school. 

The guidance, issued in 2014 by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, puts schools on notice that they may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if a policy leads them to discipline students from one racial group at higher rates than their peers, even if that policy was written without discriminatory intent. It's a concept called disparate impact.

If a school finds black students in violation of a rule at higher rates than their peers, that rule must be necessary to "meet an important educational goal," the guidance says. And before settling on a punishment, the school must consider appropriate alternatives that have less of an impact on the "disproportionately affected racial group." The guidance's test for "disparate impact" of a disciplinary policy mirrors the past interpretation of courts in civil rights cases centered on school discipline.

The guidance includes a flowchart to help schools determine if policies that result in disparate impact are discriminatory.

disparate impact in school discipline 2014 guidance

Critics say the document has had a chilling effect on local decision-making in school discipline. Schools that are afraid of sparking federal investigations have limited teachers' ability to discipline students without providing useful alternatives, those critics have said.

Supporters of the guidance, including many civil rights groups, say it has led schools to make meaningful changes, to rework discipline policies, to train teachers how to recognize their implicit biases, and to reduce suspensions for non-violent behaviors like defiance and dress code violations.

DeVos, who has been criticized for her position on civil rights enforcement, has said the Education Department is reviewing the guidance. She is also the chair of a federal school safety task force, convened by President Donald Trump after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., to consider a range of issues, including whether the guidance should be rescinded. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and several other cabinet members are also on that task force.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies before a Senate committee in June. --Susan Walsh/AP

Further reading on school discipline and civil rights:

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