Many soundbites sound good, but have very harmful consequences in the real world. That’s the case for President Obama’s proposal in his State of the Union Address to not allow anyone to leave school until age 18 or graduation. This proposal originated with “the National Education Association, which stands to gain from the idea a measurable boost to its dues-paying ranks, and which has in fact proposed mandatory schooling for nongraduates up to age 21.” This proposal could result in an increase in school violence by bored and frustrated 17-year-olds who hate school but are forced to attend. It would also make it even harder for teachers to maintain order in dangerous schools, contributing to an exodus of talented teachers who would rather teach than be babysitters or policemen. And it could result in truancy charges and arrests for parents who fail to get their stubborn, fully-grown offspring to attend school.
As one commenter notes, “If the union is really pushing something like this, I wonder how many of the members actually welcome it. How many teachers really want to deal with a 17 year old who doesn’t want to be in school? The type that drop out can’t be a joy to teach.” Commenting on the NEA’s ultimate desire to keep people in school until age 21 (Obama wants every American to attend college or at least get “more than a high-school diploma”), another commenter notes, “I suppose Obama would send the cops after those notoriously unproductive dropouts Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.”
Federal interference makes it much harder for schools to maintain discipline than it otherwise would be. In Commonwealth of Virginia v. Riley, the Education Department argued that a federal statute, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, sharply limits schools’ ability to expel violent students with learning disabilities, and that even when expulsion was permitted for serious crimes like murder, the school district would have to send a tutor to the prison at the school district’s expense. Bureaucratic rules, partly designed to avoid lawsuits, also undermine school discipline: public schools in some politically-correct areas are unable to maintain the classroom order needed for learning, because teachers have no power to discipline bad actors in the classroom.
The Obama administration has made matters worse by interfering with schools’ ability to discipline even violent students. It has investigated school districts for “racial discrimination” in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because those school districts consistently suspended violent or seriously-disruptive students, and the resulting numbers of suspended students were not in proportion to the racial makeup of the overall student body (including the vast majority of law-abiding students). To end such an investigation, a school district is pressured to enter into a settlement mandating racial quotas in school discipline. Former educator Edmund Janko explains here how he used to discipline white students more than black students in order to avoid a discrimination investigation by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (where I used to work). Janko would suspend whites for offenses that earned black students only a reprimand. That way, he could meet an informal racial quota in school suspensions. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals says such racial quotas are unconstitutional. But the Obama administration has taken a more aggressive stance on civil-rights issues than preceding administrations, such as holding institutions liable for racial disparities or impacts on minorities resulting from longstanding, merit-based policies on hiring, firing, and discipline, and arguing that federal anti-discrimination statutes override First Amendment rights.
(Originally, the Obama Administration insisted that school districts were liable for “discrimination” even if they treated all offenders the same regardless of race, under the so-called “disparate impact” theory of discrimination (under which a race-neutral practice, like requiring a high-school diploma, can be deemed discriminatory simply because it weeds out more blacks than whites, and thus has a racially “disparate impact”). When the U.S. Civil Rights Commission began investigating the Obama Education Department, it realized that such disparate-impact claims are legally suspect under Title VI (due to the Supreme Court’s Alexander v. Sandoval decision, which said that schools — unlike workplaces — are not liable for “disparate impact,” but only for intentional discrimination), and instead came up with a new rationalization for going after the school districts (it claimed that the racial disparities were circumstantial evidence of intentional discrimination under the Supreme Court’s Bazemore decision, which says that statistical disparities can be evidence of intentional racial discrimination, and places only weak limits on the sort of junk-science regression analyses that a plaintiff or civil-rights agency can rely upon to claim discrimination).)
As Walter Olson, the dean of law bloggers (he runs the world’s oldest law blog, Overlawyered), notes, parents, too could be adversely affected by mandating school attendance until age 18: “Watch out for the truancy cops, too,” since truancy now leads to arrests of parents: Free-Range Kids reports that a “Loudoun County, Va. mother says she was handcuffed and arrested after fifth instance of school tardiness.”