Created as a creative and more rigorous alternative, charter schools tend to outpace traditional public schools in most areas, including on standardized assessment tests. Yet charter schools also lead their traditional counterparts in a more disturbing trend: the number of students who are suspended or expelled each year.
In Boston, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice released a report this week showing that the city’s charter schools are far more likely to suspend students for infractions such as dress code violations and insubordination toward teachers. The report found that of the 10 Massachusetts school systems with the highest out-of-school suspension rates, nine were charter schools, and most were in the city.
Ditto Chicago, where an analysis of suspension rates issued in February found charter students were more likely to be dismissed than students in district-run schools. One network alone, the Noble Network of Charter Schools, had a suspension rate more than twice that of the city’s traditional public schools.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., a report issued in September about a similar examination of school discipline found that from 2011 to 2013, charters expelled an average of 225 students per year, compared with just eight students in the traditional school system.
The disparity has caught the attention of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who warned charters last year that their higher-than-average expulsion rate was “not acceptable.” In a 2013 speech to the National Charters Conference, Duncan challenged charter schools to find “alternative discipline methods” to out-of-school suspensions that keep students engaged while maintaining accountability and order in the classroom.
But public education advocate Jeff Bryant says the disproportionate suspension rates are a symptom of a much deeper problem. Charter schools, he says, are using harsh, zero-tolerance discipline to weed out problem students and boost standardized test scores.
“I think there’s strong evidence from [studies] and anecdotally” that support that theory, said Bryant, director of Education Opportunity Network, a public-school policy center. “Charter schools discriminate and select their students in many different ways,” he added, including out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, to winnow out underachievers.
That’s because of the bargain that charter schools have made with the taxpayers that fund them. In exchange for taxpayer money and the freedom to innovate, charter schools are held to a higher academic standard, particularly on student achievement and assessment tests. But because they’re still public schools, Bryant said, they have to accept any kid who wants to attend.
“Here’s the problem: We’ve set up this system where we determine whether a school is a failure or not by the students’ test scores,” Bryant explained. “When you isolate one variable like that and make everything else contingent on it, you encourage schools to game the system.”
While bringing order and discipline to classrooms, education experts say get-tough school discipline can do more harm than good, leading at-risk students to disengage from their own education, thus feeding the school-to-prison pipeline. Moreover, Education Department statistics indicate minority students—specifically African American boys and girls—are several times more likely to face harsh punishments, such as out-of-school suspensions.
Though the statistics are troubling, charter school advocates say their expulsion policies have nothing to do with inflating their academic record. Every case is different, they argue, and suspensions of a relative handful of students wouldn’t move the achievement needle very much.
“There [are] some [schools] above and some below the district average,” Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, told the Chicago Tribune in February. “You can’t make the argument that expulsions themselves are causing the overall school performance to increase because the (small percentage of) expelled students will not meaningfully change how well students did overall.”
But Bryant said the pattern is hard to deny, and charter schools tend not to have the same amount of resources to help children who might have behavior or learning difficulties, problems poverty tends to exacerbate. For school administrators, he added, suspension or expulsion—and returning the student to a traditional public school—is an easier alternative.
“I think there’s a place for high [behavioral] standards in education. But when there are certain factors that come into play, those expectations have to be balanced with the child’s needs,” he said. “If you are allowed to set up a school that’s not going to deal with what it takes to handle those students, that can give you an advantage” and make it easier to suspend or dismiss them.
“We cannot simply play a game of musical chairs” with struggling students “and hope some school has a magic bullet for educating them all,” Bryant added.
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