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Suspended Education: How Accountability Systems Can Address Inequitable Suspension Practices and Support Whole Child Education

Blog: How Accountability Systems Can Address Inequitable Suspension Practices and Support Whole Child Education

This blog is part of the series, Realizing ESSA’s Promise, which provides insight into ESSA’s impact on students and schools.

Thanks to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are beginning to develop accountability systems that are focused on multiple measures of student success. This comprehensive “whole child” approach is better suited to addressing inequities in our educational system, because it requires schools and districts to look beyond student outcomes to identify and address the barriers that keep many students from achieving academic success.

Many states, including California—where both of us live and work—are capitalizing on the use of multiple measures to encourage districts and schools to address one key driver of inequity: the overuse of suspension, particularly for students of color, as a discipline tactic. This practice is especially troubling to the law enforcement and retired military leaders affiliated with Fight Crime: Invest in Kids and Mission: Readiness, two of the organizations that comprise the Council for a Strong America. Unnecessary suspensions make students more likely to fall behind in school or drop out altogether; they also increase the likelihood of committing a criminal offense. As a result, there are more threats to public safety and fewer youth are eligible to join the military if they choose, which could ultimately jeopardize our national security.

A 2018 study found that 12 years after being suspended, youth were 30% more likely to have been arrested once, 51% more likely to have been arrested more than once, and 49% more likely to have been placed on probation than similar youth who had not been suspended, even after controlling for other variables that could influence their engagement with the criminal justice system. Other research shows that suspended students are twice as likely to drop out as similar students who were not suspended. This data, in combination with the disproportionately high suspension rates for students of color, should create an urgency for schools and districts to act quickly to implement effective discipline measures that benefit all students, instead of increasing their exposure to the criminal justice system.

California is one of only three states that relies on suspension rates as an essential part of its school accountability system. Statewide, suspensions in California have been nearly cut in half since 2011—though it is important to note that racial disparities persist, with students of color continuing to be suspended at disproportionately higher rates. In addition to holding schools accountable for suspensions (high suspension rates were the most common reason that districts have been identified for assistance), California requires, through its Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), that districts address suspension and school climate in their annual Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs), a tool developed with input from students, parents, educators, and other local stakeholders.

A combination of efforts have contributed to the overall decline in suspensions, including both sustained organizing and advocacy to eliminate exclusionary discipline practices at the district and state level and the increased attention to the issue via the state’s Dashboard, which provides data and assigns color-coded scores on suspensions for all students and for significant student subgroups. Other contributors include a new emphasis on alternatives for new teacher and administrator credentialing standards; increased funding for evidence-based alternatives to suspension available through LCFF; use of Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS); and passage of a statewide ballot initiative, Proposition 47, which allocated 25% of criminal justice savings to k–12 education, with a focus on alternatives to punitive discipline practices.

Our annual analysis of the LCAPs of the state’s 50 largest school districts revealed an increased emphasis on suspension reduction. The percentage of districts including Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, restorative justice, and social-emotional learning—evidence-based alternatives—rose between 2014-15 and 2017-18 from 70% to 92%. Many districts point to the positive impact of these investments in their plans—calling the alternatives “highly effective” and crediting them with a “drastic decrease in” and “dramatically reducing” suspensions. Districts are also increasing their commitments to these strategies.

Still, the state and local districts can and must do more to fully implement robust alternatives to suspensions and eliminate the disparate use of suspensions for students of color. Our LCAP review shows that the amount of funding planned for evidence-based alternatives to suspension is unclear in half of the districts with these practices, and many of those with identified funding include relatively small investments. Moreover, many districts failed to spend as much on these alternatives as promised. Nearly half of the districts ignore prioritizing equity by failing to establish subgroup-specific goals for reducing suspensions.

The state, for its part, should provide increased funding to meet local need and maximize the increased attention to this critical issue. Demand for Proposition 47 grant funds was so high, for example, that nearly twice as many district and county office of education applicants were turned away as were awarded grants. Similarly, the recent allocation of $15 million in the 2018–19 state budget to expand the MTSS program, with a focus on school climate, is spread over 5 years and won’t come close to meeting the high demand for more effective discipline alternatives. Tax revenues from the state’s legalization of cannabis could be an important source for new investments.

Of course, focusing on reducing suspensions alone is not enough. It is also critical to cultivate a positive school climate, measured by safety, connectedness, and other factors.

Of course, focusing on reducing suspensions alone is not enough. It is also critical to cultivate a positive school climate, measured by safety, connectedness, and other factors. Nationally, eight states have included school climate and related surveys in their ESSA accountability system. California doesn’t go that far and has more work to do in this area, however. For example, school climate surveys, administered every year, are a valuable tool for understanding the experiences of students, teachers, and families. Yet California districts are only required in the state accountability system to administer surveys every other year, and detailed survey results, including by student subgroups, are not integrated into the California School Dashboard. One important step the state could take is to provide funding to support annual surveys of students, staff, and parents.

Leveraging the accountability system to promote positive school climate and support implementation of discipline practices that address the whole child will go a long way toward reducing suspension and helping students achieve success in school and life—it will also result in a more equitable educational system for all.

Susan Bonilla is the California State Director of the Council for a Strong America and former California Assemblymember. Brian Lee is the California State Director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.