President Joe Biden's administration is expected to reinstate or expand guidance issued under former President Barack Obama that suggested schools could run afoul of federal civil rights law if they disproportionately disciplined students of color. The guidance was rescinded under former President Donald Trump in 2018.
The 2014 guidance was among major Trump-era decisions Biden campaigned on reversing. Shortly after being sworn in, Biden signed an executive order calling on federal agencies to review, within 200 days, whether new guidance or other efforts may be necessary for the government to systemically promote equity for all.
The U.S. Department of Education is now soliciting feedback from schools, students, families and others about issues surrounding school discipline to inform future guidance. With the possibility of yet another shift in guidance, however, come mixed feelings from school leaders.
"What is not helpful is when you go through these pendulum swings," said Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, adding rules and policies take time to get internalized and implemented.
'Establish a floor'
While changing federal guidance may not impact the daily operations of a school system, it does establish the bare minimum schools must do in order to stay within the confines of the law.
"The role of federal guidance is to establish a floor — it’s not the ceiling," Nozoe said. When the Trump administration unraveled Obama's 2014 guidance, Nozoe's organization advised its principals to continue doing the anti-discriminatory work regardless of the rescission.
"While administrations may issue [guidance], our focus is on what's best for kids," said Nozoe, adding principals have to work with families to decide what's in the best interest of the children within their respective communities. In that way, the role of school discipline is very localized and tailored to school communities, while federal guidance is "often high-level and sometimes abstract," Nozoe said.
For example, despite routinely changing federal guidance, ABC Unified School District Superintendent Mary Sieu said her district has not expelled anyone in over 11 years. "I don’t see the need for future shifts in the guidance and how it may impact the need to do our job and school discipline," Sieu wrote in an email.
A 'north star' with room for improvement
Still, abstract as it may be, federal guidance can set the tone for states and school districts. Guidance has previously served as the "north star" for principals on issues of discipline, said Danny Carlson, associate executive director of policy and advocacy for the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
"I think the reality is that there is a lot of signaling that is helpful from the administration and from the department," Carlson said.
That signaling allows federal guidance to set the tone for conversations that many educators have tried to prioritize, sometimes unsuccessfully.
Because of educators' firsthand experience, and because schools are where the "rubber meets the road, not in some state house or any branch of government," said Nozoe, it's important for the Department of Education to consult with educators prior to drafting the guidance rather than soliciting feedback after the fact.
"For whatever reason, different administrations have different priorities," Nozoe said. "We need to flip the model and support the school, rather than making up rules and telling schools to follow them."
And while guidance may be helpful, many have expressed the need to expand the previous school discipline guidance to encompass additional student groups. In a May 24 letter sent to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Attorney General Merrick Garland, 23 attorneys general requested the new guidance be expanded from 2014 to address discrimination in school discipline based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.
"Disparities in school discipline are not limited to those based on race," the attorneys general wrote.
Prioritization of time, programming and resources
Even with guidance, Carlson said there is "a suite of things" still necessary for it to have an impact. "It would be incomplete if there’s not follow-up support and resources for educators to do this, and do this well," said Carlson.
This means prioritizing funding for professional development, evidence-based techniques and anti-bias training, school psychologists and counselors, teacher retention programs and more. Administrators also cite the need for better data collection and research on alternatives to exclusionary discipline, as well as financial support and prioritization from state leaders and school boards.
"In order for us to put our money where our mouth is, we’re going to have to support our families in different ways," said Nozoe, who said his advocacy organization is working with the Department of Education, the Biden administration and Congress to reform how students are disciplined and supported. "These are changes at a system level."