Racial Disproportionality of Student Punishment Impedes Progress on School Discipline Reform in Illinois

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Since 2014, Illinois has been on the leading edge of school discipline reform. Thanks to the tireless advocacy of our partner Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), the General Assembly passed a series of laws that:
  • Require districts to report exclusionary discipline measures (expulsions, suspensions, and transfers to alternative schools) by student subgroups, including race and ethnicity;
  • Eliminate broad-based zero tolerance policies in favor of restorative practices;
  • And prohibit preschool expulsion from state-funded facilities.
These measures were passed in response to Illinois’ dubious distinction as the national leader in disproportionality of exclusionary discipline by students’ race/ethnicity. Based on my analysis of data provided by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), five years in, exclusionary discipline is down 15.1% and the number of expulsions has been cut in half. However, the latter have been offset almost one-for-one by transfer to alternative schools, and there are signs of regression among the former as reductions peaked in 2016-2017 (see Figure 1 below).


Despite this commendable progress, the central intent of the law, to reduce racial disparities in student punishment, has yet to be achieved. In 2014-2015, Black students represented 44.9% of those expelled, suspended, or transferred, despite composing only 17.5% of the state’s K-12 student population. This equates to a disproportionality factor of 2.6.

Fast forward to 2017-2018, Black students composed 43.2% of combined exclusionary discipline targets, but only 16.8% of the student population. The rate of disproportionality has held constant at 2.6 (see Figure 2 below).


Students identifying with two or more races are also more likely to face forms of exclusionary discipline than their percentage of the population would predict, while Latinx and white students are less likely, the latter significantly so.

These alarming findings provide further evidence that public policies present opportunities more than predict outcomes. Implementation, or lack thereof, is where policies succeed or fail.

It’s important to note that several our partners, including the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, have led the way on this front, ensuring compliance by ISBE and training administrators throughout the state.

These efforts should continue, but we must do more to engage other key stakeholders, teachers in particular. As humans, we all hold implicit biases, even though the vast majority of us as avowed anti-racists. These biases play out in our daily interactions with students and likely lead to inconsistent application of disciplinary practices in schools. This is especially true for students that bring significant trauma into our classrooms, trauma that most of us are poorly equipped to understand and manage.

Moreover, like the criminal justice system as a whole, we tend to employ a more carceral security apparatus in schools disproportionately serving students of color in urban environments. Herein lies the root of the school-to-prison pipeline, in many ways a preordained outcome given the intersectionality of implicit bias, trauma, and robust policing of certain schools.

We must do better as a state, for this discriminatory system undermines our efforts to foster positive civic development of students across gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and geography. Schools are public institutions, and their climate provides students with daily lessons on democratic governance, for better, and too often, for worse.

I therefore challenge ISBE to implement this law with fidelity, ensuring universal reporting of exclusionary punishment data by all demographic variables, especially race. It should also hold districts with high rates of disproportionality accountable for developing remedial plans.

I implore school administrators to pursue trainings like those led by the Chicago Lawyers Committee to better understand relevant statutes and most importantly how to move from exclusionary discipline to restorative practices.

And I encourage teachers to learn more about implicit bias and how it impacts our expectations for and interactions with students of color. As a member of the philanthropic community, the McCormick Foundation commits to identifying training opportunities and resources to assist with this and the aforementioned challenges.

Teachable Moment: Presidential Emergency Powers

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

I suspect that many lesson plans were amended or tossed out this past Friday when President Trump announced he would be using his presidential power to declare a national emergency to help fund a wall at the southern border of the United States.

Experts and pundits alike are scrambling to answer the question, “Can he do that?” as they wait for the courts to weigh in on the issue.


As we anticipate a judicial ruling to address this topic for current and controversial issue discussions, here are some resources to help you and your students address essential questions related to this “teachable moment”.
Do you have a resource you are using for this teachable moment on presidential power and emergency orders? Please comment below or tag me on Twitter at @Daneels_M. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.

Classroom Resources for Local Elections

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” Yet, while resources for presidential elections are plentiful, teachers are often left scrambling for local election materials to engage their students. While the news outlets quickly cover the latest candidate to announce for the 2020 presidential campaign, news about local candidates seems sparse in comparison.

The Illinois Social Science standards and high school civics requirement both provide a vision of civic learning that takes inquiry to informed action. In this, students can use the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they are building in the classroom to address real-world problems in their communities.

While access to national and state lawmakers can be limited due to location, proximity to legislative offices, and demanding campaign schedules, local lawmakers often live right next door to our students. They are the parents of peers and the owners of businesses students patronize. In short, they are much more accessible. These community members are the decision makers for policies that MOST affect young people’s everyday life.

A robust civic learning experience for students MUST focus on local elections and how public policy is impacted by the ballot box.

There are several tools from civic organizations and educational partners that provide a foundation for involving students in the 2019 election season. Here is a list to begin with:
We hope this list helps support your efforts to engage your students in the upcoming election season. What materials are you using that are NOT listed above? Please share in the comment section below or tag me on Twitter at @Daneels_M. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Civic Nebraska Building Democracy from the Bottom Up in the Cornhusker State

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

I had the honor of visiting Nebraska two weeks ago to serve as keynote speaker at Civic Nebraska’s annual Build Up Omaha event. Founded by now Senator and then college student Adam Morfield, the organization engages youth in and out of school in service learning projects, measures the civic health of the state, and works to ensure that Nebraskans have equitable ballot access. Build Up Omaha recognizes community members, youth in particular, who build democracy from the bottom up in the metropolitan region.


It was an inspiring event, and Morfield and his talented team made the most of my visit. It included a discussion with the State Commissioner of Education, Dr. Matthew Blomstedt, to explore stronger state civic learning policies and a sit-down blocks from the majestic State Capitol with colleagues from Lincoln Public Schools.

I was particularly impressed by Lincoln’s strong integration of service learning into the elementary and middle grades, and the fact that they require both civics and government courses to graduate, the former focused on local civic engagement for freshmen and the latter government institutions for seniors. Lincoln is also partnering with our friends at the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) to integrate media literacy in social studies courses.

Like Illinois, Nebraska has many civic strengths to build upon, including strong social capital. Nebraskans are among the most likely in the country to eat dinner with family and to connect regularly with family and friends, the essence of bonding social capital. However, as is true in the Prairie State, young people are less likely to participate in our democracy in a number of ways than their older peers. This is the bridging social capital central to democratic governance.

As I suggested in my keynote address and this related interview, civic learning is a generational investment that can help reverse this trajectory. Both Nebraska and Illinois export our fair share of corn and soybeans, respectively, but we also export young people in alarming numbers. By deepening the ownership of our youth in the democratic destinies of our respective states we will convince them to stay home and build up Omaha, Chicago, and the cities in between.

Civic Nebraska is a member of the CivXNow! Coalition that the McCormick Foundation supports through grant funding and my service on its steering committee, and they are among the states targeted for stronger school-based civic learning policies in the years ahead. The Illinois #CivicsIsBack Campaign stands ready to assist our peers across the country in making the case for such generational investments, and later to implement model policies with fidelity. On this front and many others, the Cornhusker State is in good hands with Senator Morfield and Civic Nebraska.