It's right to examine charter school discipline - but wrong to paint all schools with the same brush

Here's what we think when we look at the UCLA Civil Rights Project report on charter school discipline policies

report released last week from the UCLA Civil Rights Project broadly criticizes charter schools based on an examination of discipline and suspension data from school year 2011-12.  At NECSN we are very clearly charter school advocates – we fight hard on behalf of our members because we see first-hand the great work they do to change lives every single day.  But while we advocate, we also strive to be thoughtful, and we do not believe that meaningful systemic change ever occurs when you function in an echo chamber.  

It is for that reason that we believe the Civil Rights Project report is worth talking about. 

The report hits an obvious nerve, which was really the point.  It is descriptive in nature and presents a narrative that does not reflect favorably on the charter sector. We caution against using this report to make sweeping generalizations about all charter schools, however.

Here are our key takeaways:

1) The overall tone of the report is dire, with language about “disconcerting” statistics and “alarming findings” Many of the media reports that followed are similarly ominous. But consider this -- the report's own executive summary says, "On the other hand, some readers will also be surprised to learn that lower-suspending charter schools are more numerous than high-suspending charters."

In light of that, we should not allow this study to be used to make inappropriately broad conclusions.  The charter school movement is grounded in autonomy and independence; accordingly, there is a wide range of practices and school designs.  There is not just one type of charter school. 

2) There are multiple shortcomings in the methodological approach, resulting in a final product that does not offer an apples-to-apples comparison of suspension rates between types of schools.  Robin Lake, Research Director at CRPE, did a great job breaking down this issue, so I’ll just say you should really check out her response.  Among the most compelling things you need to know from her review are that a short in-school suspension at a charter might be cataloged in the same way as a two-week out-of-school suspension at a district –  and we don’t believe these are comparable. And the report wasn’t designed to compare schools serving similar grades and similar populations of students.  Again, descriptive data can inform a conversation but really shouldn’t be used to draw broad conclusions. 

3) The charter movement is about continuous improvement, and to the extent that reports like this shed light on practices that need closer examination, we welcome the conversation.  That doesn’t mean we endorse the findings – on the contrary just a glance at the executive summary of the report shows it is a polemic. But charters win over parents because they are not afraid of difficult conversations or of making changes. Every charter leader I know is happy to discuss their disciplinary approach, both the successes and challenges.  When the challenges arise, charters should respond; that is part of the accountability bargain.    

3a) We also trust that New York's charter authorizers are appropriately monitoring how charter schools handle discipline and that they require improvements or changes if necessary.  In fact, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers also offered a response to the report, and included some suggestions into the mix for authorizers that might need to step up their approach on this topic. 

4) There are a wide variety of policies and practices among charter schools, on everything from discipline to uniforms (or no uniforms), curricular approaches, and school culture.  Not all charter schools are a good match for all families, just like not all district schools work for all families.  But we have large wait lists in NY (nearly 50,000 this year) so the charter community is clearly doing many things very well.  And when you look at test scores, graduation rates, and rigorous academic studies, the results are in: New York’s charters are working.

Andrea is the New York State Director at the Northeast Charter Schools Network

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It's right to study charter school discipline - but wrong to paint all schools with the same brush
It's right to examine charter school discipline - but wrong to paint all schools with the same brush
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