An undisciplined classroom makes learning impossible. But one-size-fits-all policies make a mockery of fairness when they treat major disruptions and minor infractions alike with "zero tolerance."
So while it is not every day that I hand out plaudits for Gov. Jerry Brown, he deserves credit for signing a handful of bills that give local school officials more leeway on imposing discipline while vetoing a rather bad one that would have taken vital discretion away.
Conservatives have little to celebrate in California, where liberal policymakers leave very little untouched by law or regulation. Every year, it's something new and pernicious. California has far too many laws, and over the course of Brown's 2 1/2 terms, he's signed more than his share of bad ones. The Bee reported this week that Brown signed 876 regular-session bills and vetoed 120.
But while Brown may be dead wrong when it comes to taxes, immigration, and high-speed rail, his instincts are sound on the school discipline question.
One new law by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a Democrat from San Francisco, directs school districts to use out-of-school suspension and expulsion only after trying alternative punishments.
Another new law authored by Assemblywoman Wilmer Amina Carter, a Democrat from Rialto, lets school officials decide who is "truant" and who is merely tardy, discouraging school police from imposing heavy fines on late students (a scandalous practice exposed in the Los Angeles Unified School District nearly two years ago).
And my personal favorite, by Assemblyman Manuel Perez, a Democrat from Coachella, codifies a little bit of common sense by exonerating principals from automatically expelling kids for possession of "imitation firearms" (we're not talking realistic looking Airsoft pistols here; think bright orange-and-yellow Nerf guns) or over-the-counter and prescription meds.
The rules are the rules, but let's face it: some rules are so stupid that they undermine respect for law and authority.
Zero-tolerance policies are an example of the latter, in which administrators mindlessly refuse to distinguish a tiny toy from a loaded Glock, or treat a student's aspirin the same as amphetamines.
Absurd tales are legion.
"Zero tolerance" entered the national vernacular in the mid-1990s, thanks largely to the federal Gun-Free Schools Act. After the Columbine massacre in 1999, schools went to extremes in the name of safety, banning anything that even vaguely resembled a weapon or a drug.
That the Legislature even had to debate such a bill and Brown needed to sign it is a sad commentary on our foolish times. And, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, it took them long enough. Rhode Island, Maryland, Florida and Texas passed similar legislation years ago.
Now comes the objection: "Zero tolerance" notwithstanding, the schools somehow seem to tolerate a lot of really bad kids. These are the delinquents who would rather be anywhere but in school. These are the bullies and loudmouths who make learning impossible for their classmates and their teachers' lives absolute hell. And their parents are about as bad. Either they don't care, or they actually defend the little monsters' atrocious behavior.
Those kids have always been around, and likely always will. A growing body of evidence suggests that suspending kids for major and minor policy breaches correlates with higher dropout rates and increased rates of incarceration. Giving teachers and administrators broader legal authority to tailor remedies for individual students rather than feeding every kid through the same bureaucratic meat grinder, regardless of the offense is better for kids and schools.
Of course, the danger remains that lawmakers will overcorrect, and local officials who erred on the side of zero tolerance might well careen toward excessive leniency. Because California legislators are almost as predictable as the tides, they pushed well beyond a sensible corrective with Assembly Bill 2242.
The bill, by Sacramento Democrat Roger Dickinson, would have barred school officials from suspending or expelling willfully defiant or disruptive students. The bill's supporters argued that punishing "willful defiance" accounts for about 40 percent of suspensions around the state.
But Brown vetoed the bill. "It is important," the governor wrote in his veto message, "that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom."
Maintaining that broad, local discretion is advice federal policymakers would do well to keep in mind. Alas, the Obama administration seems disinclined to listen. The president in July signed an executive order directing the U.S. Department of Education to craft national policies that establish "a positive school climate that does not rely on methods that result in disparate use of disciplinary tools."
In other words, the feds may eventually begin telling teachers and local school officials how to "set the tone in the classroom." That would be a big mistake one that Gov. Brown, of all people, has wisely avoided.