Charters: Discriminatory Suspension Patterns Linked to Focus on Test Scores

Summary: A new study out of UCLA finds that charters suspend African-American and disabled students far more frequently than whites and non-disabled students. While charters are designed for innovation, they have succumbed to some of the exclusionary tactics for which public schools are criticized. Better (and costly) alternatives to suspension increasingly are being introduced in public schools. As for charters, a reexamined mandate and coordinated incentives may modify the current hyper focus on academic skill scores.

Charters have hit the national news again, this time in an unflattering light, this time in a study of discipline practices out of UCLA.

Though some charters have forged new models and raised the academic skills of their students, charters as a group have long been dogged by questions of “cherry picking” those students most ready to benefit from quality instruction and those who come from families most capable of managing alternative enrollment.

On the darker side of the picture have been allegations that students with disabilities or a particularly at risk profile have been turned away from charters or, once enrolled and without adequate support, have in effect been encouraged to dis-enroll, or simply been suspended or expelled. Survival only of the most academically fit.

Now the allegations have fact behind them. According to The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA, black students and students with disabilities have been suspended from charters at a rate far exceeding that of white and non-disabled students. The study authors noted that the charters also enrolled fewer disabled students than their public counterparts.

Cherry picking in the initial enrollment aside, it seems clear that a dynamic exists in charter schools as a group that lead them to winnow outliers from their student bodies.

Before we jump to the conclusion that charters are bad, let us remember that public schools produce similar profiles. Maximizing the success of students with disabilities and supporting the children of our racial culture into fulfillment are challenges for all schools, public and charter, and any respective finger pointing serves only to distract from the realities at hand.

Low income students, and particularly African American males, as well as students with documented disabilities can beat the odds, but only by public investment in concentrated staffing and time. Period. That is the record of success where it is to be found, whether regular or charter.

Meanwhile, other questions are begged. If a charter is to be free of the many constraints of a public school bureaucracy and then use the impunity to cherry pick, or to cordon off those more difficult to teach, then how is it that they are helping the body politic solve the most intractable problems, other than to perhaps more successfully teach those that regular public schools also reach, if not always as successfully? Should that carte blanche be more closely examined?

How are we to compare the quality of charters and publics when public schools must take all comers but charters can pick and choose?

Meanwhile, the problem of chronic student misbehavior remains with us.

Restorative justice is one example of an experiment broadly implemented as an alternative to suspension. Restorative justice starts with a conference of the student who has transgressed, together with peers and staff members who are in his circle of contacts. The convocation is charged to help the student find constructive ways to remedy the tear in the school community’s fabric caused by his transgression. Note this can be time and people intensive, and by definition is outside the regular classroom day. Suspension is cheaper and quicker, but far less regenerative than a well-conceived restorative alternative, as studies are beginning to demonstrate. How could it be that we would help troubled kids by excluding them to the streets rather than offering them a seat in the village?

Variations on the restorative justice theme animate the work of truancy boards in the West Valley School District of Spokane, Washington, as reported by the Seattle Times’ excellent “Education Lab” coverage.

By the letter of Washington State’s BECCA law, chronic truants are to be referred to juvenile courts, where they are ordered to school. If they fail to comply, they are subject to juvenile detention. The hard hat tactic hasn’t worked if retention of kids within the village is the standard. By one study, only thirty percent of kids sent to court graduate or earn a GED.

By contrast, West Valley schools’ truancy boards bring together school personnel, court officials, and community agency representatives to investigate the root causes of a student’s truancy, and then marshal their collective resources to support the student through whatever dilemma he or she faces.

Specifically in Spokane Valley High School the court funded a probation officer to work in the schools to monitor and foster follow through on plans the truancy board created for individual students.

The result has been striking. As much as 82 per cent of truant students in the West Valley District have earned diplomas or a GED. The cost of the truancy board in West Valley and one other Spokane High School has been roughly $200,000 a year (the probation officer was paid for by the court). The study looking at cost/benefit issues found that as much as $68 million of the public exchequer will be saved in otherwise lost tax revenues from failed students and the cost of social services to serve high school dropouts.

Parenthetically, it is distressing to learn that the pivotal probation officer assigned to Spokane Valley High School was returned to juvenile court when grant funding ran out, despite plaudits all around for his work with kids. Thus, the tax averse taxpayer will be gouged for more taxes down the road because of this lack of civic leadership, which in the chain of events is secondary to the taxpayers’ own myopia.

The West Valley truancy boards are no outliers. The Seattle Times reported more recently on radical reforms in Connecticut in the handling of minor juvenile crimes, including truancy. Among other changes the revised system funnels truants to social service hubs that, like truancy courts, intervene in students’ life circumstances. Recidivism is low, and juvenile detention centers are quiet and closing.

The parallel with the trend in the adult justice system to look for alternatives to incarceration is unmistakable, and may herald a longer term societal shift in approach to socially aberrant behavior.

While public schools remain the opportunity of last resort, the dilemma remains that many charters, which should be the site of experiment, substantially seem to dodge some of more intractable issues.

The problem may lie with the system of incentives. Much of the reform movement seems to have been stimulated by corporate frustration with the poor skill levels of the youth needed to people the work force. Thus was born the focus on skill levels, rightly enough so. The downside is that charters, created intentionally outside of public school bureaucratic control, and called to justify their existence as skill centers, were inadvertently incentivized to avoid those students more difficult to reach.

As a contrast, consider the public Mission High in San Francisco whose heavily immigrant student body has among the lowest test scores in the state, particularly in reading, largely due to the substantial percentage for whom English is a second language. Yet 84% of Mission’s graduates were accepted by a one college or another, having demonstrated the intellectual wherewithal and persistence to succeed at that level, among other positive indices nurtured by a dedicated staff.

In other words, test scores are but one factor in a well-rounded assessment of a vital school, a conclusion embedded in the news that charters exclude at a high rate those students who do not readily fit their restrictive mold.

Charters would be more broadly useful if their contract specified the support and retention of at risk kids and kids with disabilities, and to recognize the long term value of such elusive ingredients as the cultivation of intellectual curiosity and a belief in one’s own agency.

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2 Responses to Charters: Discriminatory Suspension Patterns Linked to Focus on Test Scores

  1. Deb says:

    Awaiting your first book Mr. Brand. Charter or public, I’m afraid the formula is not as easy as people hope. Schools are a microcosm of culture and society. What about any of this is simple?!

  2. schooldog says:

    Not simple, indeed, which can get lost in the charter/public school antagonisms. Book due out October 2030

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