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The Hidden Cost of California's Harsh School Discipline

Authors: Russell W. Rumberger and Daniel J. Losen
Date Published: March 08, 2017

The new report calculates the financial consequences of suspending students in each California school district with more than 100 students, and for the state as a whole.
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Embargoed for release until 12:01 EST March 8, 2017

This study, The Hidden Cost of California's Harsh School Discipline, was authored by Dr. Russell W. Rumberger, Director of UCSB’s California Dropout Research Project, and Daniel J. Losen, Director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project at the Center for Civil Rights Remedies. The lead author, Dr. Rumberger, is a nationally acclaimed scholar and is widely considered the state’s leading expert on the causes of student dropout.

Rumberger and Losen followed a single cohort of California 10th grade students through high school for three years to develop the study. They discovered that students who were suspended had only a 60 percent graduation rate, far below the 83 percent graduation rate for non-suspended students. 

Researchers then controlled for other common predictors of dropping out of high school to isolate the unique effect of school suspensions. They concluded that suspensions alone result in a 6.5 percentage point drop in graduation rates.

Next, using well-established economic models, Rumberger and Losen determined the economic consequences of increased drop out resulting from school suspensions. They calculate a total statewide economic burden of $2.7 billion over the lifetime of the single 10th grade cohort. The $2.7 billion total includes $809 million in direct fiscal costs to taxpayers, such as higher criminal justice costs and reduced revenue generated, and $1.9 billion in social costs, such as reduced economic productivity and higher health care expenses. A single non-graduate generates $579,820 in economic losses over his or her lifetime, on average. 

The economic impact of school suspension varies widely by school district, with California’s largest districts incurring the greatest losses. For example, over the lifetimes of the 10th grade cohort studied, suspensions in the Los Angeles Unified School District, California’s largest, are estimated to result in $148 million in economic damage. Suspensions in Fresno Unified are estimated to cost $56 million; San Diego Unified will cost $38 million. Suspensions in San Francisco Unified and San Juan Unified, California’s 14th and 15th largest districts respectively, are expected to cost $13 million each. 

The research supplement to The Hidden Costs of California’s Harsh School Discipline provides similar economic estimates for all 401 California school districts enrolling more than 100 students. 

Cutting suspension rates by one percent for the 10th grade cohort studied would result in economic savings of $180 million. A one percent drop at LAUSD alone would save California $25 million.

The study also found that persistent racial and ethnic disparities continue to plague California school discipline systems. For example, 29.2 percent of Black students in the 10th grade cohort were suspended, more than twice the statewide average of 14.9 percent. Latino students were also disproportionately affected, with suspension rates of 16.2 percent. 

Despite the high cost of suspension, co-author Daniel Losen says California is on the right track. He notes that statewide suspension rates have declined during the past three years and praises the state for designating school discipline as one of seven key state accountability indicators for statewide accountability and as part of the plan to meet federal requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The researchers hope that the findings estimating how much suspensions lower graduation rates encourage other states to follow California's lead in making school discipline a school performance accountability indicator pursuant to the federal Every Students Succeeds Act.

The authors recommend that California education leaders and individual school districts continue to make reducing suspensions a priority, and focus especially on eliminating racial and ethnic disparities. Also, they recommend increasing training and support for teachers about classroom management techniques and alternatives to suspension; greater transparency and public reporting about school suspension; and eliminating the use of suspension for disruption/defiance at all grade levels. Local Control Accountability Plans and the recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act provide ideal opportunities to achieve these and other goals.


In compliance with the UC Open Access Policy, this report has been made available on eScholarship:

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