No-excuses charter schools told: No excuse for high suspensions

Should charters have to compromise high standards for student behavior?

A few years ago, I attended an education conference in which one of the speakers led one of the most successful urban charter schools in America. In an off-the-record discussion of discipline, he acknowledged his school suspended and “counseled out” more students than its district-run counterparts.

He made no apologies. He didn’t believe students who upend the classroom should get a pass, no matter their economic or family circumstances. And it was unfortunate that the local public schools to which those kids returned lacked the same leeway to remove students who prevented classmates from learning.

I have talked to charter school teachers who admit it’s a relief to know a student who wreaks havoc can be steered to the traditional public school down the street. But then teachers in those traditional schools lament their classrooms become the port of last resort for kids with issues.

Today, there is new attention to high suspension rates in charter schools, including even such revered schools as Roxbury Prep in Boston.

Massachusetts education commissioner Jeff Riley recently warned the school it could face probation if it doesn't reduce its out-of-school suspensions. In a Boston Globe story, a former administrator at the 1,500-student charter school described the practice of "suspending students into compliance."

A story in WBUR reports:

State data show that Roxbury Prep has had among the state's highest rates of out-of-school suspension from at least 2012 onward. That was, in part, by design: For example, a Roxbury Prep student handbook (PDF) from the 2012-13 school year includes a pledge to "make no excuses." Since the late 1990s, when Roxbury Prep was founded, that phrase — "no-excuses" — has been associated with a brand of charter schools that coupled high performance with tough discipline.

While many teachers in traditional public schools also endorse tough discipline, they contend they’re pressured to slash the number of students they send to the office, in part because of data showing it’s minority and poor kids who suffer the harshest punishments.

Schools are increasingly being rated not only by how well their students perform on tests, but on their progress in lowering suspensions. Teachers say they’re being ordered to keep and deal with troublemakers in the classroom. Student discipline now often top lists of why teachers flee the profession.

In California, lawmakers are considering banning suspensions for K-12 students accused of “willful defiance.” The state already bans schools from suspending children in kindergarten through third grade.

Senate Bill 419 states:

The bill would prohibit the suspension of a pupil enrolled in a school district or charter school in any of grades 4 to 8, inclusive, for disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the valid authority of those school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties. The bill, until January 1, 2025, would prohibit the suspension of a pupil enrolled in a school district or charter school in any of grades 9 to 12, inclusive, for those acts.

The California bill includes charter schools as there have been complaints about the suspension rates in charters. In its annual list of schools best serving poor kids in the Bay area, the non-profit Innovate Public Schools penalized schools for high suspensions rate, which saw some charters fall off the list that was released today.

In a column today, Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, decried this interference in how charters discipline their students, writing:

What we're seeing is the crusade against school suspensions now warring against schools that successfully educate thousands of poor and minority kids. It's a fact that one of the secrets—not the only secret—of their success are behavioral standards as rigorous as their academic standards, and little or no tolerance for youngsters who cannot or will not meet those standards. Though the phrase "no excuses" has gone out of vogue, the fact is that great schools such as Roxbury Prep—and Eva Moskowitz's fast-growing Success Academy network in New York City—simply refuse to accept excuses for infractions.

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