Disparate Measures

The author of a new study on charter schools, civil rights and suspensions says it’s time for charters to abandon the *broken windows* approach to discipline…

brokenwindowsEduShyster: Your new study on charter schools, civil rights and discipline hones right in on what seems like, um, kind of a big contradiction. That the self-proclaimed civil rights issue of our time so often seems to lead to a type of schooling that ends up violating students’ civil rights. Am I right?

Dan LosenThe main thrust of the report is this concern that you’re raising. That not only are there some really high-suspending charter schools, but that you have advocates for these kinds of schools resisting what is a really important discipline reform movement across the nation. Also, we have to be looking at school suspension rates when we’re considering performance. We can’t be making excuses or giving a pass to charter schools when we know there’s a consensus that we shouldn’t be suspending kids at really high rates, because it’s really harmful. What we see when we look at the data is that there are some really high-suspending charter schools that are embracing zero tolerance which they should be rejecting.

EduShyster: I’ve seen your study criticized as being *anti-charter,* but one of the really interesting things you uncovered in the data is that there are actually more charters that suspend very low numbers of kids than there are high-suspending schools.

Losen: There are plenty of charter providers that have rejected zero tolerance, and we essentially recommend that effective charter schools that are low suspending and are looking to increase diversity and getting good outcomes should be the subject of research and replication. One of the excuses you hear schools make, whether they’re charters or not, is that *we just have to kick out these bad kids so that the good kids can learn.* In other words, there are no other choices besides zero tolerance, and the only other alternative is chaos. But the fact that there are more low-suspending charters than high-suspending charters is more proof positive that there are less discriminatory alternatives than policies and practices that produce sky-high suspension rates and large disparities, not only for Black kids compared to white kids or Latino kids compared to white kids but kids with disabilities.

broken_windowsEduShyster: You point out that many of the high-suspending charter schools embrace the edu-equivalent of *broken windows* policing. The irony is, of course, that broken windows policing itself is now widely blamed for the criminalization of communities of color, over policing and excessive force. So why would the same philosophy be acceptable in schools?

LosenI just think it’s outrageous that in creating a school climate that anyone would look to *broken windows* as their guiding principle, knowing that broken windows is a crime intervention theory that has clearly been associated with racial oppression in many communities, including Ferguson. The idea that, instead of looking at all of the research on child psychology and what works, they would decide that crime policy is what should govern how they set up their school climate suggests that they’re thinking much more about children in a way that denigrates them and is highlighting that they’re a potential criminal element. That’s one of the reasons why the cover of our report features a young child behind a broken window.

 I just think it’s outrageous that in creating a school climate that anyone would look to *broken windows* as their guiding principle, knowing that broken windows is a crime intervention theory that has clearly been associated with racial oppression in many communities, including Ferguson.

EduShyster: One of the arguments I often hear from proponents of these kinds of charter schools is that there’s no evidence that their high suspension rates is leading kids to drop out. In other words, that whole thing about suspension fueling the school-to-prison-pipeline? Not relevant here.

LosenMy response to claims like that would be *so show us the data.* We have really high-quality research from Florida and Texas that included traditional public schools and charter schools and tracked individual students. Unless charter schools are able to back up their assertions with tracking data of the students they suspend to say *the students we suspend go on to great things,* I don’t buy that assertion. You can’t just say stuff. You have to back it up with evidence, and I’m sure that if they actually had evidence to back up that assertion we would have seen it by now. One problem we have is that charter schools don’t always report their data accurately, so transparency would really help us assess those claims.

UP Academy, which is expanding into Lawrence and seeks to open another charter in Boston, lost more 25% of its students last year.

EduShyster: In my adopted home state of Massachusetts, we have some of the highest performing charter schools in the country, but a number of them also rank high on the suspension scale, which is a metric that we’re not supposed to talk about. The predominant narrative among public officials and charter school advocates here seems to be that whatever these schools are doing is working, so don’t mess with them. Oh, and we should have a lot more of them.

Losen: Take a school like Roxbury Prep in Boston that suspended 57.8% of students with disabilities at least once, according to 2014-2015 data. Now that suggests to me that they should have been flagged along time ago and raises this question of what it means to say that a school is high performing. High performance should include a range of indicators, including whether a school is effective for ALL kinds of students. We should be looking for charter schools that have low suspensions, low attrition rates, and are also performing well academically. But we may miss out on what some good charters, and good non-charters are accomplishing, if the only thing that we really count or care about is the test scores. I have no specific proof, but I also worry that in some cases the *high performance* is artificially boosted by discouraging lower-performing students from staying enrolled, or even from applying in the first place.

EduShyster: The Every Child Succeeds Act includes a provision that requires states to look at students’ conditions of learning, including the overuse of suspension. Does this mean that we’re going to see more pressure on the high-suspenders to curb their high-suspending ways? 

Losen:  It’s a very vague requirement. I’m concerned that through legislation or interpretation some states will say that in their state, charter schools are going to be exempt from some of the provisions of ESSA, including that one. In California, for example, charter schools are exempt from the state code of conduct that limits suspension. You might also see states set the N size for analysis or the metrics used for detecting problems in a manner that excludes charter schools. That to me is a big concern.

EduShyster: Let it be noted for the record, sir, that this is the first time that *N size* has appeared on this blog. Just saying…

Dan Losen is the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, part of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Send comments or questions to jennifer@haveyouheardblog.com


  1. Of course 90% of students are enrolled in traditional public schools, so the national figures should tell us a lot about how even handed discipline is in those schools.

    Nationally, African American students are 18% of preschool enrollment but 48% of preschool students given multiple out of school suspensions. African American students are suspended and expelled at THREE TIMES THE RATE of white students, students with disabilities are MORE THAN TWICE AS LIKELY to receive out of school suspensions as students without disabilities.

    Is this national pattern, the product of our traditional public schools, demonstrate a violation of student civil rights in those schools?

    Source: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rulesforengagement/CRDC%20School%20Discipline%20Snapshot.pdf

    1. This national problem is the fault of non-charter and charter schools alike. The short answer is that it certainly suggests violations in those schools, too. And yes we’ve been raising that concern for 17 long years. Please visit http://www.schooldisciplinedata.org. for our reports and data on every school district in the nation alongside research on more effective alternatives.

  2. I appreciate the nuance with which this is presented, especially Mr. Losen’s recognition of the differences amongst charter schools. Understanding this and seeking out effective examples for replication is the next step forward if we’re to build on school choice developments. Chingos and West (2015) suggest more frequent evaluation of success with special consideration for specific school missions or goals. It is clear that there are discipline inequities that schools of all types will need to address. Developing measures to improve upon this, along with problems of diversity of population in general, is important for sustainable school choice growth.

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