Suspending Teens Ruins Lives and Costs Taxpayers $35 Billion a Year

Booting students out of school makes them more likely to drop out, putting them on the path of reliance on publicly funded services.
(Photo: Frederic Cirou/Getty Images)
Jun 4, 2016· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s an established fact that minority schoolchildren in struggling districts tend to get suspended or expelled at a significantly higher rate than white students. The practice retards academic development, boosts school dropout rates, and is a major conduit in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Now, a new study from a University of California, Los Angeles, think tank lays out a powerful argument for why the rest of us should care: School suspensions are costing American taxpayers $35 billion each year in lost tax revenue and higher costs for publicly funded services.

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Produced by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, the study, The High Cost of Harsh Discipline and Its Disparate Impact, found the jaw-dropping economic impact after a limited study examining suspension rates at the 10th-grade level alone.

Other studies have proved that suspended students are at high risk of dropping out of school and that “people without a high school diploma earn less, have more health problems, and are more likely to get into trouble with the law,” Russell W. Rumberger, coauthor of the study and professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in a statement. “That means less tax revenue and higher health care and criminal justice costs for all of us.”

Reducing the racial discipline gap “makes good economic sense and will reduce social costs that hit communities of color the hardest,” Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA, said in the statement. “Schools don’t need to rely on suspension. There are many alternatives that teach good behavior and hold students accountable for their conduct while keeping them in school.”

The $35 billion price tag “seems like a huge number, but it’s actually a very conservative estimate,” said Losen. “We looked at data from just one cohort of 10th-grade students. Multiply that with 10th-grade cohorts from additional years, and costs will easily exceed $100 billion.”

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Jeff Bryant, director of the Education Opportunity Network, a public-school policy center, told TakePart that the study’s groundbreaking findings are likely the tip of the iceberg.

While the effects of suspension on students are known, few have tackled the problem “in economic terms as a cost to the greater society,” Bryant wrote in an email to TakePart. “The samples in the study are limited both in terms of grade levels and geography. So the study’s findings should prompt further inquiry” and are likely to reveal a wider, costlier price tag.

Using longitudinal data that tracked a cohort of 10th graders, researchers calculated that suspensions of students in that grade would lead to more than 67,000 high school dropouts across the country. To support the conclusion, the study says, researchers analyzed school-suspension data in Florida and California and came up with similar results.

The cause-effect equation, according to the study, is fairly straightforward: Suspending students makes it more likely they’ll drop out of school, increasing the odds they’ll have a low-paying job or run afoul of the law. In addition to lost income-tax revenue from the underemployed, according to the study, high school dropouts are more likely to need taxpayer-subsidized health care and social-welfare services or enter the criminal justice system.

“These estimates show that over the course of a lifetime, each additional dropout is responsible for $163,000 in lost tax revenue and $364,000 in other social costs, such as health care and criminal justice expenses,” reads the study. “Cumulatively, the total cost of the 67,000 additional dropouts caused by school suspensions nationally exceeds $35 billion.”

Bryant wrote that the study should be a wake-up call to education officials and ed-reform policy makers to “reconsider the rapid expansions of ‘no excuse’ charter schools that are occurring in most states.” Those schools, he wrote, “often get waivers from state or district school discipline policies so they can employ harsher discipline methods,” which typically result in higher rates of suspensions for black and Latino students.

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At the same time, “many schools are showing positive results of using restorative justice practices as alternatives to harsh discipline,” Bryant wrote. The study concurs, noting that California “has reduced suspensions by nearly 40 percent since the 2011–2012 academic year by virtually eliminating suspensions for the minor infraction of ‘disruption or defiance.’ ”

Alternative discipline methods “show some evidence of both reducing suspensions and days lost to instruction,” Bryant wrote. “There is a cost in terms of more time and resources to implement these programs,” but there’s growing evidence it’s worth it—including the $35 billion U.S. taxpayers lose each year because of unequal suspension-based discipline.

“The outcomes produced by these more positive approaches,” he wrote, “could be well worth the expenditure in the long run.”