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?