Charter Schools Don’t Really Have a Suspension Problem

Charter Schools Don’t Really Have a Suspension Problem
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In this Dec. 20, 2013 file photo, students use the entrance for Success Academy and Opportunity Charity schools in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

RCE Commentary

There’s a problem with the narrative that charter schools have a discipline problem: It’s simply not true.

Last week at the National Charter Schools Conference, Secretary of Education John King challenged charter schools to rethink their approach to discipline.

King spoke from personal experience, having co-founded Roxbury Prep, a very successful Boston charter school, that employed strict discipline practices and had a 40 percent suspension rate in 2014. King acknowledged that though Roxbury Prep has started to rethink its discipline practices, they did not do so fast enough, and he urged charter leaders to “commit to accelerate exactly this kind of work.”

Over the past year, charters have come under increasing fire in the media for their alleged disproportionately harsh discipline practices. Such practices, particularly the liberal use of suspensions, are often seen as harmful, because they have been linked to negative long-term student outcomes and keep many at-risk students out of, rather than in school. Such stories have built a broad-based narrative that charter schools have a discipline problem.

The narrative is partially anecdotal, with particular high profile charter networks, like New York City’s Success Academy, accused not only of severe disciplinary policy, but of using those policies to push out undesirable students. The narrative is also partially data driven, based on papers like a widely cited report by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA finding that charter schools have higher suspension rates than traditional public schools, particularly for students of color and students with disabilities.

King’s comments were measured, but he certainly accepted the narrative that charters have a discipline problem. “Not all of the criticism has been fair or accurate,” he said, “But, as a whole, it is true that charter schools suspend a higher percentage of their students than do district schools.”

But there is a problem with this narrative: it’s actually not true. The anecdotes it’s based on aren’t representative of the broader charter sector. And the data analysis is based on a flawed methodology. Properly analyzed, charters suspend fewer students than public schools, not more.  

The existing argument compares the average characteristics of charter and traditional public schools, which is problematic; traditional public schools serve students everywhere while charter schools are concentrated in urban areas and don’t serve the average student population. So blanket comparisons between charters and traditional publics can’t help but yield misleading results.

A more telling method would compare charters to the neighboring traditional public schools that students might otherwise attend. In a forthcoming study, I compare the suspension rates of charter schools across the nation to the rates of their five nearest traditional public school peers. Rather than simply looking at the question from 30,000 feet, this comparison lets us understand the actual differences between charters and comparable traditional public schools.

On average, the charter suspension rates in dark blue in the figure below are indeed higher than for all traditional public schools in grey. But compared to their neighbors in light blue, that gap disappears. If anything, discipline at charter schools is less severe. 

It turns out that it matters quite a bit which schools you compare charters to, but it also matters how you compare them. Comparing averages assumes that charters are similar to one another, but some charters might have much lower discipline rates than their neighbors while others have much higher rates. The second chart shows how often and how much charter discipline rates differ from their neighbors.

About half of charter schools have relatively similar out-of-school suspension rates (±5 percentage points, in grey). The red sections show the proportion of charters with suspension rates that are higher than their neighboring traditional public schools, where 11 percent in dark red have suspension rates that are 10 or more percentage points higher and 6 percent in light red have marginally higher rates of between 5 and 9 percentage points. But the blue sections indicate that substantially more charters have lower suspension rates than their neighboring traditional public schools. Fifteen percent of charters have rates 10 or more points lower than their neighbors (dark blue), and nearly as many have rates 5 to 9 points lower (light blue). Contrary to the prevailing narrative on charter school discipline, charters more frequently have lower suspension rates than their neighboring public schools.

Inappropriately harsh discipline practices deserve public scrutiny, whether in charter or traditional public schools. As the graph above shows, some charter schools’ suspension rates are much more severe than their neighbors. But contrary to the popular narrative, driven by high-profile media accounts and ideologically charges phrases like “school-to-prison pipeline,” a larger percentage of charter schools suspend students less frequently, not more.

King said, "my challenge to you is this: don't get caught up in battles about whether charters are a little better or a little worse than average on discipline … Instead, focus on innovating to lead the way for the sake of our students."

We should not get caught up in that battle, but in the politicized debate surrounding charter schools, it’s important to get the basic facts right. We need to have a debate about the charter schools we actually have, not those we think we have. Promoting the narrative that charters have a widespread discipline problem is not only misleading, it also misses the good news that, when it comes to discipline, many charter schools are already leading the way.


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