School Choice & Charters Opinion

The Reform Debate, Part III: Charter and Voucher Rules and Regulation

By Douglas N. Harris — November 30, 2015 5 min read
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Three weeks ago, I started a series on arguments for and against regulations on charter and voucher schools. Then, right on cue, came Eva Moskowitz and the Success Academy controversy and Senator Clinton’s subsequent claim that “most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.”

While we don’t have the whole story, the basic outline seems to be that a school principal had a list of students they were trying to drive out of her school by making their lives difficult. Almost no one thinks this is a good idea. Moskowitz herself said that “A mistake was made here” and “What he [the principal] did was wrong and he knows it.”

Not surprisingly, there was an outpouring of criticism from groups that typically oppose charter schools, such as Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten. In Moskowitz’s (partial) defense, Mike Petrilli wrote, “Rather than blast Moskowitz, Weingarten and others should ask that district teachers have the ability to prioritize the vast majority of their students, too.” Rick Hess echoed the sentiment.

On one level, this is an age-old debate. Common sense and research both suggest that one disruptive student prevents all students from learning--on that point Petrilli is absolutely right. But that leaves open the key questions: How much responsibility do we give to teachers to prevent disruption? And at what point do we remove a disruptive student from the regular classroom, either temporarily through suspension or permanently through alternative education programs?

Traditional public schools have long struggled with these questions, and they do sometimes expel students or place disruptive students in separate settings. But the key here is that the answers may be different in the charter world. Part of the point of the charter movement is that questions of practice--from school discipline to curriculum and hiring--should be answered not by district and state leaders, but school and CMO leaders. From this perspective, schools should make and act on their own judgments about teacher responsibility and removing students.

In fact, if you read further into the Petrilli piece, he writes “some want to tie their hands [those of charters], too . . . Don’t discipline too many kids! Don’t tell parents of kids with significant disabilities that this school might not be a good fit for you! . . .

This is exactly the wrong approach. Rather than piling old restrictions on charter schools, we should be working to reduce the restrictions on traditional public schools.” Here, it becomes clear that the Moskowitz defense isn’t a defense of the got-to-go list, but of the principle of school autonomy.

A second principle of the charter movement is that schools should be allowed to differentiate themselves to meet distinctive student needs. In both respects, charter schools represent a departure from the traditional school district where the vast majority of schools provide a similar education to the vast majority of students in their communities. If we want differentiation, it might make sense for some schools to have more intensive discipline than others.

Do these principles excuse the got-to-go list? No. It’s one thing to create a distinctive school admission that tries to attract and serve certain students, but quite another to surreptitiously push students out who have chosen your school. It’s one thing to suspend and expel students based on violations of school rules that are reasonable and clearly stated, but another to go around those rules to get rid of students in other ways.

Even if they were following the rules, autonomy and differentiation are not the only principles in play. The defense of Success Academy actually runs headlong into two other principles that school reformers typically support. The ability of families to choose schools is one. The “got-to-go” list a clear departure from parental school choice--Success Academy was choosing its students, not the other way around.

The “got-to-go” list also seems to conflict with the “no excuses” perspective--that schools should have no excuse for student failure. While this is in many ways a laudable way of thinking (I’ll consider the evidence on no excuses schools some other time), the idea does sometimes degenerate into a denial of the important role of poverty and external influences that significantly influence how schools function and how much students learn. No school would feel the need for a got-to-go list if schools were completely in control. School leaders could just hand the list to their own teachers and call it the “reduce-disruption-and-fix it-yourself” list. No excuses.

So, the conflict for school reformers is between the principles of autonomy and differentiation on the one hand and parental choice and no excuses on the other. And for at least some charters, autonomy and differentiation are winning out. Or maybe it’s just narrow self-preservation. In a competitive environment, charter school networks are pressured to produce high test scores and keep the majority of their parents happy. In this situation, it may seem logical to push out students, but it may also undermine the larger charter movement.

The same kind of problem existed in New Orleans when the new school system was first put in place after Hurricane Katrina. Schools worked hard, but some also pushed out students in ways similar to Success Academies. I’ve heard first-hand accounts of this from educators and there is some more broad-based evidence to back it up. Since then, steps have been taken here to prevent this behavior. System leaders put in place the OneApp centralized student enrollment system, plus another centralized system of expulsion. It’s too early to tell whether these systems are working, but there are some positive signs. For example, the rate of expulsion in New Orleans is actually lower than it was in the pre-Katrina period when the district was comprised of almost all traditional public schools. So, there are signs that the new version of the New Orleans model seems to straddle these fault lines far better than Success Academies.

So, there may be a better way forward for the reform community. Though there are rules and regulations on school admissions, schools here in New Orleans have considerable autonomy and parents have considerable choice. Schools differentiate and many adopt a no excuses approach.

Whatever system we choose, there are some principles that almost everyone should agree on. All schools should welcome and seek to serve the interests of all the students who enter their doors. In some unusual cases, that might mean suggesting these students attend other schools that can better meet their needs. In other cases, it might mean removing individual students from classrooms to prevent disruption and to provide additional supports to help get these students on track.

In no cases, however, should schools try to push out students simply because they would prefer that someone else deal with their challenges. The “got-to-go” list goes against not only convention and tradition, but against any reasonable definition of public schooling.

The opinions expressed in Urban Education: Lessons From New Orleans are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.