Two Powerful Summaries of Injustice in the Charter Sector

Those of us who live in cities and states where charter schools have rapidly expanded know the sensational stories that appear in the press—fraud, conflicts of interest, nepotism, punitive discipline, and a raft of stories about exclusion of students who are the most vulnerable and expensive to educate.  These stories are shocking and at the same time isolated. Two new academic reports document broader trends across the charter sector.

In Charter Schools, Civil Rights and School Discipline: A Comprehensive Review, Dan Losen and colleagues at UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies examine trends in out-of-school suspensions and harsh discipline.  The report warns: “(T)here is a wealth of research indicating that the frequent use of suspensions is harmful to all students, as it contributes to chronic absenteeism, is correlated with lower achievement, and predicts lower graduation rates, heightened risk for grade retention, delinquent behavior, and costly involvement in the juvenile justice system… The well-documented harm to students associated with suspensions also translates into wasted tax dollars….”

Losen’s new report is based on school discipline data collected from all of the nation’s 95,000 publicly funded schools including charter schools from the 2011-2012 school year.  Losen reports serious racial implications: “Nearly half of all Black secondary charter school students attended one of the 270 charter schools that was hyper-segregated (80% Black) and where the aggregate Black suspension rate was 25%.  More than 500 charter schools suspended Black charter school students at a rate that was at least 10 percentage points higher than the rate for White charter school students.  Even more disconcerting is that 1,093 charter schools suspended students with disabilities at a rate that was 10 or more percentage points higher than for students without disabilities.  Perhaps the most alarming finding is that 235 charter schools suspended more than 50% of their enrolled students with disabilities.”

The report points to a particular slice of the charter sector and does not indict all charter schools: “(L)ower-suspending charter schools are more numerous than high-suspending charters… (W)hile this report suggests that many charter schools with excessive suspension rates are contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline and that some are likely violating the civil rights of their students, it also suggests that other charter schools likely offer… effective non-punitive approaches to school discipline….”

The report from UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies recommends that, “in the course of monitoring charter schools with high and disparate discipline rates, federal and state civil rights enforcement agents should insist that schools relying on ‘broken windows’ theory or similar zero-tolerance approaches consider less discriminatory alternatives.”  “Federal civil rights enforcement agencies should monitor charter schools closely for discipline disparities generated by harsh policies and practices.”  And, “States should ensure that the state plans they create to implement ESSA (the new federal education law that returns to the states much of the responsibility for addressing school accountability) do not exempt charters from their required efforts to improve the conditions of learning, including identifying and curbing the overuse of suspension.”  Notice that Losen and his colleagues strongly encourage the federal Office of Civil Rights, a division of the U.S. Department of Education, actively to monitor the civil rights implications of policies devised by the states to comply with the new federal law.  Considering the lax regulation of charters in my own state of Ohio and many other states and considering what has been criticized by the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General as weak federal oversight of the charter schools funded by the federal Charter Schools Program, Losen’s demand for increased federal enforcement in charter schools of students’ civil rights is a welcome recommendation.

The other new report, Do Choice Policies Segregate Schools? from the National Education Policy Center, summarizes the research literature about increased school segregation in the charter sector: “From the outset, school choice advocates have contended that choice policies would advance integration. Choice can give children the opportunity to attend a school outside of highly segregated neighborhoods, with the hope that market forces will drive integration. Buttressing the integration claims, these advocates assert that charter schools… enroll a greater proportion of students from low-income families and students of color than do traditional public schools.”  However, “While some choice school enrollments are genuinely integrated, the overall body of the research literature documents an unsettling degree of segregation—particularly in charter schools—by race and ethnicity, as well as by poverty, special needs and English-learner status.”

  • Specifically, “At the national level seventy percent of black charter school students attend intensely segregated minority charter schools (which enroll 90-100% of students from under-represented minority backgrounds), or twice as many as the share of intensely segregated black students in traditional public schools.”
  • The report cites research from Gary Miron that seventy percent of charter schools managed by the large educational management corporations “were found to be very segregated by high income and low income.”
  • English language learners are documented in the research literature as under-represented in charter schools.  While 11 percent of students in traditional public schools are English language learners, charters operated by the large educational management organizations serve only 4.4 percent of students learning English.
  • Charter schools, according to research from the Government Accounting Office (GAO), enroll fewer disabled students and “serve less severe and less costly disabilities.”
  • “Parents with greater formal education and who are more affluent are more adept at maneuvering within the choice system.  Because wealth and education are so strongly correlated with race, ethnicity and English-learner status, all of these forms of stratification are facilitated and exacerbated by choice.  These more advantaged families are able to tap into social networks, to provide transportation, and to provide the ancillary financial and parental supports sometimes required by choice schools.”

While it is important to see the broad trends summarized, none of the information in either report—on punitive school discipline in some charter schools—and on the tendency of school choice to promote racial and economic segregation and to advantage privileged parents—is new.  These trends run counter to the ideals at the heart of our society’s history of providing a system of public schools that have, however slowly over the generations, responded to public pressure to equalize access and opportunity.  Our society has increasingly secured the rights of students in public schools through legislation, and civil rights protection at the federal level has been able to overcome injustice when states have failed to defend students’ rights.

Our nation’s over ninety thousand traditional public schools continue to serve the families in the 99 Percent. How can we enhance the voices of teachers and parents and silence the pro-privatization voices of corporations and hedge-funders who invest mega-dollars in lobbying and whose dollars shape the messages that reach the media?  How to counter active pressure on state legislatures to expand charter schools from the American Legislative Exchange Council?  How to push back against the unaccountable power of mega-philanthropy—Gates, Broad, Walton, Koch—and against state-by-state pressure from far-right, think tanks that are part of  State Policy Network?  Will the citizens who depend on public education be able to build the political will to protect from the power of the One Percent our public schools that are best equipped to protect the safety and civil rights of the 50,000 million students enrolled?

New Reports Confirm Charter Schools Promote Racial Segregation in CT and NC

For more than half a century since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, our society has believed we value policies that support racially integrated public schools.  In the past two decades, however, the rapid growth of the publicly funded but privately managed charter school sector has promoted racial segregation.  Reports released this month from Connecticut and North Carolina document that when parents choose schools in the charter marketplace, they tend to segregate their children in schools dominated by large majorities of children of their own race.

Gary Orfield and Jongyeon Ee, of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, describe Connecticut School Integration that has been accomplished in the public schools and intentionally diverse magnet schools that were the result of remedies in Sheff v. O’Neill, the 1989 school funding and desegregation lawsuit in Hartford.  “The Sheff case was a long struggle by a group of outstanding civil rights lawyers, plaintiffs and local residents who supported the change and those who worked with them… The efforts have not eliminated segregation or ended racial achievement gaps but it is the only state in the Northeast that is going in a positive direction and it has created voluntary processes that have clearly reduced severe segregation in a time devoid of national leadership.”

While the extraordinary inter-district magnet schools with specialty curricula and the inter-district enrollment program that Sheff created have increased the mixing of students from city and suburb and demonstrated that black, white and Hispanic students can happily and successfully learn together, Connecticut’s charter sector, by contrast, has become highly segregated.  Orfield and Ee explain: “A 2014 report by Connecticut Voices for Children concluded that ‘a majority of the magnet schools and technical schools were ‘integrated’… but only 18% of charter schools.’  In fact ‘the majority of charter schools were instead ‘hypersegregated’ with a student body composed of more than 90% minority students.'”  Orfield and Ee recommend that in Connecticut, where public and magnet schools have become more integrated, “Charters should come under the state’s diversity policies and requirements and should have goals, recruitment strategies, public information and transportation policies to foster diversity including diversity of language background.”

In a second paper, published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, scholars from Duke University document that segregation of charters has been an accelerating trend in North Carolina.  The paper, “The Growing Segmentation of the Charter School Sector in North Carolina,” by Helen F. Ladd, Charles T. Clotfelter, and John B. Holbein, is behind a paywall, but an early draft, can be downloaded here from among the papers presented at the 40th annual conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy.  The Duke researchers describe a study conducted between 1999 and 2012 and conclude: “The state’s charter schools, which started out disproportionately serving minority students, have been serving an increasingly white student population over time.”  The authors also conclude that rising test scores in North Carolina’s charters are not the result of improved school quality—as has been suggested by promoters of charter schools—but are instead the result of a shift in population as many charters have come to enroll students with higher average family income: “Our analysis of the changing mix of students who enroll in charter schools over time… leads us to believe that a major factor contributing to the apparent improved performance of charter schools over the period (of the study) may have as much or more to do with the trends in the types of students they are attracting than improvements in the quality of the programs they offer…  Taken together, our findings imply that the charters schools in North Carolina have become segmented over time, with one segment increasingly serving the interests of middle class white families.”

Reporting on the Duke study for the Washington Post, Jeff Guo explains that North Carolina laws governing charter schools may be contributing to the diminishing number of minority students in North Carolina’s charter schools: “One problem is that disadvantaged students have less of a chance to attend a charter school.  First, they or their parents have to be plugged in enough to know which are the good charter schools and motivated enough to apply.  Then, they need to have the resources to actually attend the charter, because unlike regular public schools, charter schools in North Carolina do not have to offer transportation or lunch to students.  For poor students who rely on school buses and free meal programs, the costs associated with attending a charter school may discourage them from the opportunity.”

As school districts across the South have remedied de jure segregation and been released from their court orders and after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2007 that race cannot be the sole basis of voluntary desegregation plans to remedy segregation by race, neither the federal government nor the states have been proactively supporting school integration.  It is another thing altogether, however, when market-based charter schools, which are said by their promoters to be public schools, are freed from the existing civil rights policies that govern public schools and that our society still claims to value.

Departments of Education and Justice Endorse Restorative, not Punitive, School Discipline

On Wednesday, January 8, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued new guidance to reduce zero tolerance discipline policies in the nation’s public schools and to encourage schools to handle routine, non-criminal infractions inside schools instead of turning students over to police.  The goal is to make the climate at school safer and more welcoming and significantly to reduce what is known as the school to prison pipeline, as young people find themselves in the criminal justice system for what are often minor infractions.

Special thanks for years of advocacy leading to this change in policy must go to an active coalition of national education and civil rights organizations who have worked doggedly for changes in particular school districts and in federal policy.  They include Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NAACP, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Justice Policy Institute, and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.  The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have endorsed these changes.

This effort was made especially urgent when, after the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, more schools began  hiring police guards, called “school resource officers” (SROs) on the assumption that police are needed to protect the well-being of children.  Advocates have continued to point out that increasing police presence at school criminalizes children by escalating the involvement of the police in matters that could be (and have in the past have been) handled by school personnel.

On January 12, the NY Times editorialized on the change in federal guidance: “The guidance documents included striking data on racial inequities.  For example, African-American students represent only 15 percent of public school students, but they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and  36 percent of those expelled.”  “The treatment of disabled students should be a source of national shame: They represent 12 percent of students in the country, but they make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.”

In a press release celebrating the change in federal guidance, the American Federation of Teachers noted that in addition to developing better training for school personnel, it will be essential to restore staff whose positions have been eliminated due to cuts in school funding.  In 34 states, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state expenditures for education have not recovered their 2008, pre-Recession levels.  AFT recommends widespread restoration of critical school personnel including counselors, psychologists, nurses, and school social workers.