A story of good intentions, if not legislative success, is the bill that aims at reducing out-of-school suspensions for the youngest children in public schools.
A measure by Sen. Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, started out as a proposal to end the suspensions in kindergarten to third grade. As she said, and the Senate’s education committee agreed, out-of-school suspensions of such young students can be counterproductive.
Yet Broome revamped the bill in another Senate panel to reduce its effect drastically. Under the revised version of Senate Bill 54, school authorities would only be banned from handing down out-of-school suspensions for most school uniform violations.
Those problems represent just a tiny fraction of the 7,400 instances of public school students in the earliest grades being sent home last year.
“It is a baby step,” Broome said of her revamped bill.
The baby steps are justified, given that the bill attracted considerable pushback from school boards and teacher groups. The reason: discipline problems, even in the very earliest grades.
“They thought I was trying to take their authority away from them for discipline,” Broome said after dialing back her measure. “That was not my motivation. My motivation was to stop the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Opponents said previously that the original ban proposal would handcuff school officials, who they said sometimes have no choice but to suspend a student who is disrupting a classroom.
Disruption? It happens, even in the earliest grades. The original bill was opposed by the Louisiana Association of Principals, Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.
The revised bill now goes to the state House.
While this is a well-intentioned proposal from Broome, the idea that the Legislature should set rigid rules for everyone under its broad jurisdiction ought to provoke some thought about this kind of bill. Schools, whether traditional public schools run by elected boards or charter schools run by independent nonprofit boards, are complex little societies, and children — particularly in the elementary grades — can be bundles of trouble as well as joy.
The teachers and principals closest to the problem ought to have discretion in how to deal with discipline problems, even as Broome rightly points out the data that show students sent home in the earliest grades are at risk of falling behind — with serious long-term consequences for their successful schooling.
Even uniform violations might be symptoms of more serious problems with elementary students. In a world in which ever-more-rigid requirements are laid down from on high, we hope that members of the Legislature should remember that the professionals closest to such problems have the authority and discretion to make judgments in difficult cases.
The problem identified by Broome is a real issue, but a new law might not be the best way to approach it.