Putting a cold financial price tag on the impact of school discipline practices, researchers have calculated that a 10th-grade California student who drops out because of suspension could end up costing the public $755,000 in lost tax revenue and increased health care and criminal justice expenses over the life of the student, according to a report released Thursday by the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies.
The researchers amalgamated decades of studies to produce what they said was the first report to isolate the role of suspensions in increasing dropout rates and to quantify the economic cost of suspending students on a national level and in two states, California and Florida.
“If schools knew the real costs associated with suspension, its use might not have become so pervasive,” said the report, which was co-authored by Russell Rumberger of UC Santa Barbara and Daniel Losen of UCLA.
By adding specific economic costs to the state and national conversation about school discipline practices, the authors said they hoped their findings would mobilize investments in alternatives to suspending students. Manuel Criollo, director of organizing for The Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, which works with students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said significant investments were needed if schools are going to make the shift from “zero tolerance” – automatic suspensions for certain behaviors – to a culture in which students, teachers and parents address the root causes of behavior conflicts.
“We’ve probably invested $10 million in restorative justice and school climate in the district, compared to $60 million for school police and $30 million on campus aides,” Criollo said. “For this year’s budget battle, a lot of us are supporting the school climate educational justice fund – we want $60 million.”
Suspension rates have dropped by 40 percent in California since the 2011-12 school year as the result of state and federal pressure, including the 2014 California law that eliminated the use of “willful defiance,” loosely defined as disruptive behavior, as a reason to expel students in grades K-12 or to suspend students in grades K-3. School districts are required to report their rates of suspension and expulsion in their annual Local Control and Accountability Plans. And the State Board of Education is likely to include suspension rates as a key indicator in the metric it must develop for California’s compliance with the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which goes into effect in the 2017-18 school year.
Being suspended one or more times in 10th grade resulted in more than 10,000 additional high school dropouts in California in the high school graduating class of 2004, the report found, in an analysis that controlled for other dropout risk factors such as low test scores, absenteeism and growing up in disadvantaged families. And high school dropouts are expensive, Rumberger said. The report used data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, one of the few studies that uses a nationally representative sample of students who are surveyed as 10th graders and then again as 12th graders.
“People without a high school diploma earn less, have more health problems and are more likely to get into trouble with the law,” he said. “That means less tax revenue and higher health care and criminal justice costs for all of us.”
A one-percentage-point drop in suspension rates in California would result in a fiscal benefit of $105 million, because of increases in earnings, spending and tax payments, and a social benefit of $346 million because of a decrease in spending on public assistance, health care and prisons, the report found.
“We say we should invest in schools not prisons, and this really puts the dollar and cents number on that,” Losen said. “It makes good economic sense, as well as being a matter of social justice and civil rights, to reduce the racial discipline gap,” he said, referring to the disproportionate rate at which African-American youth are suspended relative to their enrollment numbers.
Losen said “there is nothing inevitable” about high suspension rates and that studies have found that “school policies and practices – factors schools control – are the primary drivers of suspension rates, not student behavior.” A principal’s belief in harsh discipline practices is “the strongest predictor of high suspension rates and large racial disparities in discipline,” the report said, noting a 2015 study.
Nationwide, suspensions in 10th grade contributed to 67,000 students eventually dropping out of high school in that student cohort. And that, researchers found, results in costs to taxpayers of more than $35 billion. A one percentage point drop in the suspension rate nationally could lead to nearly $3 billion in increased tax revenue and lower costs for health care, public assistance and prison.
But some teachers say the pressure to reduce suspension rates has not been accompanied by enough support from administrators. In a recent survey of 1,300 teachers in the Fresno Teachers Association, 70 percent disagreed with the statement, “The district is moving in the right direction as it relates to school safety and discipline.”
“You’re supposed to develop restorative practices with the teachers,” said Jon Bath, a teacher in the Fresno Unified School District. Instead, Bath said, the “top-down” decision to mandate lower suspension rates and the use of restorative practices has left teachers frustrated. He said the focus was on “looking good” with lower suspension rates and blaming teachers if students have behavior problems.
“The issue is a directive coming from district leadership to get expulsions and suspensions down because there’s this comparison and competition,” said Tish Rice, president of the Fresno Teachers Association, in a statement. “So now folks are chasing after metrics instead of dealing with the root causes of the behaviors.” She added, “Our educators are crying out for help and should not have to wait any longer for the district to create an environment free of violence.”
Draquari McGhee, 17, who will be a high school senior next year in Fresno Unified, said he was suspended for five days for refusing to step into the hall to talk with a teacher. The incident started, he said, when he ended a call on his cellphone while at the threshold of a classroom and the teacher told him he couldn’t come into class. “I said I am already off my phone and I’m going to come inside and do my work,” he recalled. The teacher told him to step into the hall and talk to him. McGhee said he felt pushed into a corner – he was upset about an event earlier in the day, didn’t want to talk to anyone and just wanted to do his school work. Soon, the vice principal was summoned and told him that he was suspended and if he didn’t leave, the school would call the police.
“It didn’t need to go that way,” McGhee said.
He and the teacher are now on “great terms,” he said. “What happened was we didn’t know each other,” he said.