Parental Choice Could Help Curb Willful Defiance in School

Students attending Oakland Unified Public Schools will no longer be suspended for willful defiance, a broad category of misbehaviors such as swearing at teachers, texting in class, or refusing to take off hats in the classroom. A number of other California schools districts, including those in San Francisco and Los Angeles, are also dropping willful defiance from their lists of suspendable offenses, according to published reports.

The decision is being hailed by some civil rights groups, who note that African-American students are disproportionately suspended from school for such offenses. These groups and others also argue that alternative discipline policies that do not interrupt students’ learning time should be explored instead.

To be sure, discriminatory discipline policies should never be tolerated in school; however, the discipline struggles confronting government-run schools are largely a problem of their own making—particularly in California where parents’ choices over where their children attend school is sorely constrained.

Ideally, all parents—regardless of income or address—should be free to choose the education provider they believe is best for their child. Parents choose schools based on academics, an educational approach that reflects their beliefs, and safety, which includes school climate and discipline.

By artificially constraining parents’ choices over where their children attend school, assigned schools lose one of the leading supports to schools’ and students’ success: parental support.

We value what we choose more than what’s foisted upon us. When parents can’t (or don’t have to) actively choose their children’s schools, many of them may simply start believing that education—and the good behavior required for children to learn—is somebody else’s problem.

In a competitive education climate, schools feel powerful pressure to distinguish themselves. Not only does such pressure include promoting their particular curricula and teaching approaches, it also includes their disciplinary policies.

Some parents may prefer stricter disciplinary policies, which could include school uniforms and signed codes of conduct. Other parents may prefer a more relaxed disciplinary approach, which involves more meetings with counselors or school staff.

Regardless of the preferred approach, were parents freer to choose their children’s schools, if and when student behavioral problems arose, then parents, teachers, and school officials would be more likely to be on the same side, all working together for the benefit of the student.

That scenario, far more than recurring drastic shifts between zero-tolerance and kumbaya, let’s-all-just-get-along approaches, would prevail—to the benefit of everyone involved, students first and foremost.

As public school districts struggle to adapt to shifting mores about appropriate student discipline policies, officials should be advocating for greater parental choice in their children’s education.

At a time when public school civil rights complaints are at an all-time high, it’s worth considering the contribution that parental choice in education can make toward equitable, actionable, school disciplinary policies in California and nationwide.

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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