All Public Schools Have a Suspension Problem. And It Hurts Students of Color and Students with Disabilities

All Public Schools Have a Suspension Problem. And It Hurts Students of Color and Students with Disabilities
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Children play outside Winterberry Charter School in Anchorage, Alaska, Wednesday, March 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

RCEd Commentary

A greater proportion of students of color and students with disabilities are suspended by both charter schools and traditional public schools.

But Nat Malkus’ recent piece in RealClearEducation regarding suspension of students attending charter schools minimizes that problem which civil rights and disability advocates are acutely aware of. For Malkus to say that charter schools do not have a suspension problem is not true and does an injustice to the students who, as reported by the schools themselves, spend more time out of school than their peers.

There is room to debate who has the more significant problem, and there are analytical challenges associated with making appropriate comparisons given that charter schools tend to cluster in urban areas. But at the end of the day, it is the equivalent of defending the second worst versus the worst. And while charter schools enroll more students in urban settings, the assumption that these schools should reasonably expect to have significantly higher discipline rates perpetuates the notion that poor students of color should be disciplined more.

In response to this pressing problem, we issued a joint statement on discipline last month, authored by our Equity Coalition -- composed of charter school and special education leaders --calling upon the charter sector to drive change and provide leadership related to improving discipline practices. Our statement emphasized our wholehearted support for charter autonomy and simultaneously recommended that more attention be paid to the disproportionate discipline problem that equally challenges charter and traditional public schools; too many students of color and students with disabilities are being denied an education due to exclusionary discipline practices. 

For instance, according to the most recent release of the Civil Rights Data Collection, black preschool children are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions than their white peers. At the K-12 level, 18 percent of black boys have been suspend once or more compared to only 6 percent of their peers. And, students with disabilities in K-12 are suspended more than twice as often as their peers without disabilities (11 percent versus 5 percent).

Charter critics have tried to designate disproportionate discipline a charter problem. While appropriate to point out that it is not a problem unique to charter schools, it is still very much a problem supported by credible data. For instance, our side-by-side analysis of the 2011-12 Civil Rights Data Collection documented that both charters and traditional public schools suspend and expel students with disabilities at a similarly high rate relative to their peers without disabilities. In aggregate, during the 2010-11 school year, charter schools suspended 13.45 percent of their students with disabilities vs. 7.40 percent of all students. And, charter schools have expelled 0.55 percent of their students with disabilities compared to less than half that rate -- just a quarter percent -- of all students. A recent report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education documented that in response to concerns about discipline practices, charter schools in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans are taking tangible steps, such as introducing equity reports, to increase data transparency in order to reduce discipline rates.

And, while charter opponents have leveraged anecdotal accounts, there is no shortage of research or due process complaints documenting that too many students are being disciplined in charter schools across the country. For instance, the UCLA Civil Rights Project recently released a report highlighting charter schools that are suspending significantly more students than traditional public schools and lawsuits have been filed against charter schools in HoustonNew Orleans andNew York City related in part to problematic disciplinary practices. These practices have long-term impacts on the life trajectory of students. We are in the early stages of analyzing the most recent data reported through the Civil Rights Data Collection to provide comparative and trend data on charter schools in follow-up to our 2015 report but we know from the analysis on traditional public schools referenced above, students with disabilities continue to be disproportionately affected by both suspension and expulsion.

We applaud Malkus for examining the nuances of the discipline rates across the country and look forward to participating in ongoing collegial debates about this important issue. Data and transparency are critical to an informed discussion that will ideally influence both policy and practice. This includes highlighting “bright spots” in both sectors that can serve as examples for their peers. For instance, the National Charter School Resource Center recently released a suite of tools to assist charter schools develop positive discipline practices.  A recent report highlights schools such as New Orleans College Prep Network in Louisiana that is implementing a multi-tiered system of support, restorative justice and trauma-informed care and Rowe Elementary School in Illinois that is utilizing culturally-responsive programming, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and Responsive Classroom models to create positive learning environments. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Education launched the #RethinkDiscipline initiative in 2014 to provide tools, resources and guidance to inform public schools’ disciplinary practices.

Moving forward, we need to collectively hold both traditional and charter public schools accountable for examining their data related to discipline and committing to investing in appropriate training and instructional practices that can lead to creating positive learning environments that decrease the need for discipline, especially those practices that disproportionately hurt students of color and students with disabilities.

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