(image courtesy of Mayor Greg Ballard's office)
Mayor Greg Ballard wants to look more closely at whether there is a racial disparity when it comes to punishment in Indianapolis schools.
The study was part of the mayor's announcement last week that he wants the city to spend $25 million to get up 1,300 poor children into preschool as a way to hopefully keep them from becoming criminals when they grow up. Ashlyn Nelson, education policy analyst with IU's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, says it's almost a given that more African-American and other students of color are suspended or expelled than are white students, according to previous studies of school data from across the country. "The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights issued a brief...which showed that African-American students are suspended or expelled at a rate that's three-times higher than white students," said Nelson. "About five-percent of white students are suspended at some time during their school careers, compared to about 16-percent of black students."
Some studies, including one from the Equity Project at IU, found the disparity in school punishment by race to be higher at suburban schools than urban schools, like IPS and the other school districts in Indy. Nelson also says that disparity is considered to exist even if it is by the smallest of margins. "If it's higher than one-to-one - if a school has 15-percent black students and more than 15-percent of black students are suspended or expelled, that's considered evidence of a disproportionate impact," Nelson said. But the federal study, which used data from the 2011-12 school year, does not explain the reasons behind the punishment, which Nelson says makes it difficult to analyze the data.
Nelson hopes the study commissioned by Ballard will ask more questions, because she says right now we can't tell whether the kids who are punished are simply the ones getting in trouble for one reason or another or whether there is actual discrimination. "We know that students of color are disproportionately classified as special education students, so that could be driving some of the numbers here," Nelson said. "In terms of proving this is discrimination, you need to be able to demonstrate that similarly situated white students who exhibited similar behavior were not held to the same disciplinary standard. That's difficult given that it's often difficult to find similarly situated white students in the same school."
The study, like Ballard's pre-school plan, would be funded by ending Marion County's homestead property tax exemption, which would mean a property tax increase for almost half the county's homeowners. The Republican mayor has floated that idea to pay for more police officers three times in the past, and the City-County Council, which is controlled by Democrats, has voted it down every time.