10th Amendment

The Federal Government’s Micromanagement of School Discipline

Earlier this month the Departments of Education and Justice released an information package regarding school discipline. Its main thrust is that not one, but two federal departments are going to micromanage school discipline in a district near you.

Concerned that discipline for misbehavior may be unfairly meted out based on race, disability, religion, or sex, the Departments have decided to conduct investigations “as part of their regular compliance monitoring activities”—not just when there is a complaint of discrimination.

One would hope that schools could avoid punishment for discrimination by not discriminating in policy or practice, but that would be a false hope. The Departments made clear that disparate impact alone is enough to invoke their ire. In their own words (see page 11 in the previous link), “Schools also violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race.”

In other words, even if a school’s disciplinary policy is sound and no one can point to any actual incidents of discrimination, it may still face a federal investigation if boys are disciplined at a greater rate than girls or racial minorities at a greater rate than whites. If a school’s discipline numbers are off, the Departments can rewrite students’ discipline records, retrain school officials, and rewrite discipline policies (see page 15).

Now, utter ridiculousness aside—it’s not difficult to conceive of a legitimate reason why a school might not discipline boys in precisely the same proportion as girls—we must ask why Utah allows the federal government to micromanage school discipline at all.

The short answer? Money. By accepting funding from the Department of Education, Utah concurrently accepts a host of regulations: anti-discrimination mandates, annual testing, curriculum requirements, record keeping and reporting requirements, state and local spending requirements, and even rules on how Utah treats private schools.

So, what is the price tag for controlling Utah education? Surprisingly, not much. For fiscal year 2014, Utah will get $481 million from the federal government (see Table 15) for primary education. It’s a big number, but actually only accounts for 13% of Utah’s public education dollars. And even though Utahns would essentially pay twice if Utah rejected federal education dollars (once when they pay federal taxes that are distributed to other states for education, and again when they have to pay state taxes to fund education here in Utah), one has to wonder if that—short of the Department of Education’s dissolution—isn’t the lesser of two evils, and the right course of action.