The disparity, argues Daniel Losen, the director of the center and the lead author of the report, is the real problem. “This is a matter of civil rights,” he said. Losen is worried that charter networks like Success Academies, which has touted its strict discipline practices, are driving the conversation about what discipline in charter schools should look like and making it harder for charters that support concepts such as restorative justice (the practice of using mediation and dialogue to resolve issues instead of suspensions) to gain a foothold. While there are certainly restorative-justice critics, particularly where training in how to administer the concept has been piecemeal, proponents, including Losen, argue it can help reduce racial disparities in suspension rates. Studies suggest that kids who are suspended, especially repeatedly, are more likely to drop out of school, more likely to end up in jail, and less likely to find meaningful employment. “As taxpayers,” Losen said, “we should also be concerned, because zero tolerance has a real economic cost.”
The authors also express concern that some charter schools are dissuading children with disabilities from enrolling, which may contribute to the high marks some zero-tolerance schools report. Nationally, charters enroll a lower percentage of kids with disabilities than traditional public schools. Success Academy, New York City’s largest network of charter schools, was criticized last year when a “Got to Go” list created by one of its schools of children it wanted to leave came to light and raised questions about whether some charters succeed by pushing some students away. While private schools have the option to limit who they enroll, charters, the authors argue, should not be permitted to discourage certain students from enrolling.
The timing of the report is no coincidence. As states work to determine how they will implement the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the United States’s federal education law, some have the option to exempt charters from certain requirements. The report urges states not to do this, and argues that charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, are in a unique position to reform how they administer school discipline because there are fewer political barriers standing in their way. “There is no reason why charter schools cannot help to establish best practices that could, in turn, inform all public schools,” the authors write. “Whether or not charters become leaders in this area, applying federal law to charter schools will mean that, if a more effective approach than zero tolerance can be found, charter schools, like non-charters, are obligated to adopt the change.”
While the report doesn’t go into detail about specific schools that have adopted less punitive discipline measures, it finds that more charter schools at the elementary level have low suspension rates than high suspension rates. A separate study out of Stanford University last year suggested that charters in some states do a better job than traditional public schools of educating English-language learners. “There is this huge contrast and it’s not like all charters are higher suspending,” Losen said. The issue, he argues, is a lack of transparency. “If you have choice, you have to have information,” he said. “Some parents might not be so eager to send their kids if they knew.”