California's Suspensions Are Down, But Racial Disparities Persist
By Jonathan D. Glater
While school suspension rates have fallen sharply in recent years in California, the racially disproportionate impact of this form of punishment has persisted. That is the headline conclusion of the latest report on education in the United States from the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy. The important and difficult questions are why and what can be done.
The study, one chapter in the final volume of a multiyear series, examined possible relationships between rates of suspension and (1) size of the school, (2) poverty at the school, and (3) share of the student body that is African American, among other variables. Overall, the rate of suspensions of black students is higher at larger schools than at smaller schools; higher at schools attended by more students receiving free and reduced price meals, and higher the larger the share of the student body that is black.
California presents a useful case study because state lawmakers have acted to reduce use of suspension, defined for purposes of the study as suspension off-campus. In 2014 the legislature passed Assembly Bill No. 420 (“AB 420”) which prohibited schools from expelling students because they engaged in acts of “willful defiance.” That catchall term was the most common offense leading to suspension, especially for minority students.
Rates of suspension were already declining when AB 420 was enacted and such decreases have continued. Between 2013 and 2015, suspension rates fell by nearly one-third for all students and for each major racial/ethnic group (the categories are white, black, Hispanic and Asian).
But the rate for black students remains more than triple that of Hispanic students, who constitute the group suspended at the next-highest rate. In 2015, for every 1,000 black students in California schools, black students received 178 out-of-school suspensions, while the comparable number for Hispanic students was 52; for white students, 44; and for Asian students, 12.
The report breaks schools into two groups, those with high rates of suspension of African American students, and those with low rates of suspension of African American students, and then examines characteristics of the schools to identify correlates of suspension rates. In 2015, there were 1,930 schools with high suspension rates, defined as a rate of 5 percent or more, and there were 3,546 schools with low suspension rates, defined as a rate below 5 percent.
Although there were fewer schools with high rates, those schools imposed 35,424 suspensions, compared to 139 at the low rate schools. (I am leaving out, although the report discusses them, the schools that did not report Education Law Prof Blog: