July 10, 2018
The Honorable Betsy DeVos Secretary
United States Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW Washington, DC 20202
Dear Madam Secretary:
It has been widely reported that you are considering revoking the Department’s January 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter providing guidance on the nondiscriminatory administration of school discipline.
In the best interests of young people across our nation who struggle in the school setting, we ask you not to move forward with such an action.
California’s recent experience proves that school districts can successfully reduce school suspensions and the disparate impact of exclusionary discipline policies. Moreover, that progress goes hand-in-hand with greater academic achievement, safer schools, and improved campus climates.
The California Endowment been working to promote alternatives to exclusionary school discipline practices for more than a decade. We know that racial inequities are real and are damaging. They are a cornerstone of the school-to-prison pipeline that leads to mass incarceration and poor health outcomes for countless young people of color.
I am writing today to share more about California’s recent experience, in the hope it will convince you that more action is needed, not less-and that revoking existing policy guidance would be an extremely unwise decision.
I. Students of Color Are Suspended More Frequently Than Are White Students, and These Disparities Are Rooted in Racial Bias. Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education and many state Departments of Education, including California’s, are indisputable. African American students are 2-4 times more likely to be suspended than are White students. Students of color with disabilities face the highest suspension risks-approximately 25 percent have received at least one out-of-school suspension.1
These disparities cannot be explained by behavioral differences or socio economic circumstance. One landmark study funded by The National Institutes of Health found that students of color are treated more harshly than are White students even when accused of similar infractions.2
These disparate outcomes are not necessarily the consequence of overt racism. Implicit bias among educators and school resources officers is also a major factor. The 2014 guidance recognizes this through its focus on disparate outcomes as well as intent. The guidance appropriately emphasizes impact on the student, not the motivation of the school or school district.
II. Suspensions and Expulsions Lead to a Lifetime of Negative Consequences. The stakes are high for our young people. Research shows that students who are suspended even once are far less likely to complete high school than their non-suspended peers. Over the course of their lifetimes, that results in a greater likelihood of unemployment, serious health problems and increased risk for arrest and incarceration. It also means less tax revenue, and higher health care and criminal justice costs, for the nation. Researchers estimate that a single high school dropout results in $163,000 in lifelong lost tax revenue and $364,000 in other social costs, such as higher health care expenses. Analysts at The UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies isolated the number of annual dropouts due solely to excess suspensions and determined that a single year’s cohort cost the U.S. economy $35 billion annually.3 Over time, these costs grow exponentially.
III. There are Proven Alternatives to Exclusionary Discipline Policies. Thanks to a determined effort by state and school district leaders in California, instructional days lost due to suspension have declined approximately 40 percent over the past five years. The racial disparities gap has also dropped substantially but is not yet eliminated.4 A variety of policy changes are responsible for this good news, especially investments in restorative practices and other alternatives to suspension. California has also prohibited suspending K-3 students for “Willful Defiance,” a vague, catch-all category used to justify exclusion from class for a variety of minor infractions, such as talking back. Many of California’s largest school districts have extended the willful defiance ban to all grade levels.
At the same time that suspensions have fallen, academic achievement and graduation rates have improved significantly.5 Also, students, parents, and staff in The Los Angeles Unified School District (California’s largest) report feeling safer on campus now that suspension rates are lower, according to LAUSD surveys.6
This is happening because LAUSD and other districts have implemented best-practice alternatives to suspension-first discipline practices, including those recommended in the federal guidance. These alternatives help educators build stronger relationships with students. They lead students to see educators as allies, eager to support them-not enforcers, searching for opportunities to exclude them from the classroom. These positive relationships are the core of a healthy and productive learning environment.
With such dramatic progress in California and other states, it is time to double-down on alternatives to suspension. Revoking the 2014 guidance would be a huge step backward.
For the sake of our children, and the strength of nation, I ask that you keep current guidance in place, and work with us to keep our young people in school, where they belong.
Robert K. Ross, M.D., President and CEO, The California Endowment
2 See Wallace, et.al, “Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Differences in School Discipline among
U.S. High School Students,” Accessed at:
3 See Rumberger and Losen, “The High Costs of Harsh School Discipline,” Accessed at: https://www. civiIrightsproject.ucla.edu/resources/projects/center-for-civi1-rights- remedies/school-to-prison-folder/federal-reports/the-high-cost-of-harsh-discipline-and its-disparate-impact
4 See Losen and Whitaker, “The Disparate Impact of the School Discipline Gap in California,” Ibid.
6 See Losen and Whitaker, Ibid.