The Ferguson Effect Goes to School

December 27, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

The “Ferguson Effect” has disappeared from the headlines. It doesn’t come up much in political discussions. But now, conservatives are pushing the same idea applied to schools.

In case you’ve forgotten, proponents of the Ferguson Effect sketch out this scenario:
  • A White cop kills a Black person, usually an unarmed Black person.
  • Black people protest.
  • The government, dominated by liberals, pressures police to be less aggressive, especially towards African Americans. Sometimes cops who have killed Black people are prosecuted.
  • Cops, to avoid being exposed to prosecution and accusations of racism, withdraw from proactive policing.
  • Crime in Black neighborhoods increases.
  • Conclusion: A  policy intended to reduce racism winds up hurting Black people.
The fault, in this model, is not in our cops but in our liberals.

For the schools version, just substitute teachers and administrators for police, and disruption/violence/bullying for crime. The villain remains the same — liberal government policies. The equivalent of consent decrees forced on police departments is an Obama-era policy that threatened schools with loss of funds for disproportionately punishing Black kids.

Betsy de Vos, Trump’s Secretary of Education, is rescinding that policy, and conservatives are cheering. Here is Jason S. Riley in the Wall Street Journal:

Racial parity in school discipline, regardless of who was being disruptive. . . is as silly as demanding racial parity in police arrests, regardless of who’s committing crimes.

If it’s Black kids who are less likely to be punished, it’s their misbehavior that will increase. The losers will be the other kids in their schools. And since US schools are racially homogeneous, the anti-racism policy will wind up hurting Black people. According to Riley, this Ferguson Effect has already happened since Obama policy went into effect in 2014.

The result is that more schools have been disciplining fewer students in order to achieve racial balance in suspension rates and stay out of trouble with the federal government. . .  In Oklahoma City, principals told teachers not to request a suspension “unless there was blood.”

The “blood” thing is a great quote, but if you are making generalizations about a nationwide policy, Oklahoma City is a very small n. Elsewhere in his article, Riley cites the report by the National Center for Education Statistics (here), a national survey, so that’s where I went for a broader view. The NCES asks teachers whether misbehavior is undermining their teaching.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)


The graphs show no sharp changes after 2014. Misbehavior that interfered with teaching began to rise in 2007-2008 and continued to rise at about the same rate. Enforcement of school rules showed no change.

What were the effects of this supposed pullback in punishment? More bad stuff. Here’s Riley again.

After school districts in Los Angeles and Chicago softened their policies to curb suspensions, teachers reported more disorder, and students reported feeling less safe. Following a similar move in Philadelphia, truancy increased and academic achievement fell. Schools in Wisconsin that followed the guidance also saw subsequent reductions in math and reading proficiency.

Riley gives us three cities and one state, each with its own negative outcomes. It’s possible that these outcomes are related — more students feel unsafe so they stay away from school, and achievement falls. But Riley doesn’t tell us whether Los Angeles students, with their lower feelings of safety, also scored worse on tests of achievement. Or whether in Wisconsin, where achievement scores dropped, students also felt less safe. He mentions “disorder” but not actual crime or even bullying. Nor does he tell us the magnitude of these changes.

Were these cities and outcomes representative, or were they merely a few unusually juicy cherries that Riley picked? To get the more general picture, I went back to the NCES survey.  Had 2014 brought in a new era of  fear?


Fear decreased in the 1990s, and it leveled off in about 2010, and did not rise appreciably after that. There is no discernible effect of the 2014 policy. Bullying shows a roughly similar pattern.


In private schools, less affected by the Obama rules, bullying declined from 2013 to 2015. In public schools, it remained unchanged — hardly the effect Riley claims.

Finally, there is actual victimization. (The data is from the National Crime Victimization Survey.)


So what can we say about the unintended consequences of the Obama policy, the bad outcomes claimed by conservatives? On average nationwide, schools have not seen an increase in violence, crime, bullying, or fear.

This doesn’t mean that Riley is totally wrong. In some schools and some cities, decreased punishment of Black kids may have had the effects he claims. But it’s also possible that in some schools, the Obama policy had the good effects its proponents hoped for — Black schoolkids feeling less alienated, less resentful, and more positive towards school. At the very least, the policy did not lead to the nationwide crisis that conservatives would predict.

For the next two years (and perhaps more), thanks to DeVos-Trump, school staff will once again be free to punish who they wish, how they wish, without having to worry about charges of racism or federal pressure. If conservatives are right, bad things (bullying, crime) will decrease, and good things (attendance, learning) will increase, especially for Black kids.

Will that happen? No doubt, in 2020, our president will claim that because of this policy, schools are now beautiful, the best they have ever been in US history. The Wall Street Journal will publish cherry-picked success stories. The rest of us will have to wait for more systematic evidence.

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