School Choice & Charters

Study: Charters Suspend More Students With Disabilities, Black Students

By Evie Blad — March 16, 2016 6 min read
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This story originally appeared on the Rules for Engagement blog.

Charter schools suspend students of color and students with disabilities at higher rates than their peers, a new analysis finds. That trend mirrors disparate discipline rates in traditional public schools, although the report finds suspensions rates at charters are slightly higher on the whole.

The first-of-its kind analysis of charter school discipline data, completed by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California Los Angeles, adds new insight to a debate that’s accelerated in recent years as traditional public schools face more scrutiny for how often they remove students from the classroom and whether their suspension policies are applied fairly across racial, ethnic, and other demographic groups such as students with disabilities.

Civil rights advocates have said charter schools have often been left out of those discussions and that some charters rely too heavily on zero-tolerance discipline policies that lead to higher suspension rates.

Analyzing the most recent federal data, which was collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights during the 2011-12 school year, the authors found suspension rates at about 5,000 charter schools are slightly higher than those at traditional public schools in most categories. On the whole, charter schools suspended about 7.8 percent of students that year at least once, compared to 6.7 percent of students at traditional public schools.

Here’s a comparison of those rates at the secondary level. SWD is an abbreviation for students with disabilities, EL stands for English-language learners, H/PI stands for Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and AME stands for American Indian. The analysis excluded alternative schools, schools that are part of the juvenile justice system, and virtual and online schools.

Gaps in Charter School Suspension Rates

The aggregate data masks large discipline disparities at some charter schools, the report says.

“More than 500 charter schools had a Black-White suspension gap of more than 10 [percentage] points,” the report says. “That same gap was found between students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers in 1,093 charter schools. In 484 of these schools, the suspension rate for students with disabilities was 20 points higher than for those without disabilities. Any school that suspends students with disabilities at such a substantially higher rate raises concern that it may be failing to meet these students’ educational needs.”

The report found a wide range of suspension rates among charter schools. Fourteen percent of the elementary charter schools in the report were considered “high-suspending” overall, which means they suspended 10 percent or more of their students. Using the same definition, 28 percent of elementary charters were considered high-suspending for black students, and 36 percent for students with disabilities.

Among secondary charter schools, 18 percent suspended more than 25 percent of their students overall, 39 percent suspended more than 25 percent of their black students, and 45 percent suspended more than 25 percent of their students with disabilities.

On the other hand, many charter schools succeed without suspending high rates of students, the report notes.

“Readers are cautioned not to make generalizations about all charters simply because some have alarmingly high suspension rates,” it says. “As this report highlights, it is important to remember that, like non-charter schools, most charter schools are not high-suspending. In fact, more elementary charter schools met our definition of a lower-suspending school than a high-suspending school, and at the secondary level higher-suspending charters only slightly outnumbered lower-suspending charters. This is proof that charter schools do not need to have high suspension rates to be successful. From a civil rights perspective, this is also evidence that less discriminatory alternatives are available to charter schools that currently suspend children of color and those with disabilities at high and disparate rates.”

Renewed Debate About Charter School Discipline

Concerns about charter school discipline practices were the subject of renewed attention last month when the New York Times published a surreptitiously recorded video of a teacher harshly disciplining a young student at a Success Academy Charter School in New York City. Success Academy schools have been accused of using discipline to eliminate students and drive up test scores. In October, the Times published a story about a Success Academy principal who drew up a “got-to-go” list of disruptive students.

Success Academies founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz called the video an anomaly. Last year, Moskowitz wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that criticized changes to the New York City schools’ disciplinary code proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, which are intended to further drive down suspension rates in the nation’s largest school district in part by replacing them with alternative techniques, like restorative practices.

Suspensions convey the critical message to students and parents that certain behavior is inconsistent with being a member of the school community," Moskowitz wrote. "Pretend suspensions, in which a student is allowed to remain in the school community, do not convey that message. Many students actually feed off the attention they get for misbehaving. Keeping these students in school encourages that misbehavior. Proponents of lax discipline claim it would benefit minority students, who are suspended at higher rates than their white peers. But minority students are also the most likely to suffer the adverse consequences of lax discipline—that is, their education is disrupted by a chaotic school environment or by violence."

Moskowitz’ piece drew criticism from students and civil rights advocates.

The new report also didn’t include charter schools that reported zero suspensions to federal agencies if they reported conflicting data to state or local officials. Those schools included Success Academies, which reported no suspensions to the feds, something the report’s authors flagged given all of the attention paid to the schools’ policies.

“Whereas the [federal] OCR report stated that these charter schools suspended no students in 2011-12, the online discipline data published by the state for the same year showed that Success Academy charter schools had suspended hundreds of students,” the report said. “In fact, rates across their seven elementary schools ranged from 6% to 27% of all students enrolled.”

I’ve reached out to Success Academies for comment, and I will update this post if I get a response.

Why Charter School Suspensions Matter

The push to drive down suspension rates has been fueled by research that links exclusionary discipline to chronic absenteeism, lower achievement, lower graduation rates, and heightened risk for grade retention and involvement in the juvenile justice system.

“The concerns raised by the data are especially relevant in light of the fact that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind, has added several provisions that address school discipline, including a requirement that every state review its schools and districts for the ‘overuse of suspension,’ ” the report says. “ESSA makes it clear that, unless a state law explicitly exempts charter schools, they are equally obligated by the requirements of the new law. By fall 2016, the implementation plan that every state must submit for approval in order to get federal funding must provide assurances that it will meet this obligation.”

The Center on Reinventing Public Education, which advocates for charter schools, criticized the report, saying it “creates more confusion than clarity” about discipline data.

“It is misleading to make crude charter-district comparisons about discipline outcomes, just as it is for achievement test scores,” Director Robin Lake said in a statement.

Also worth noting: One school cited in the report for high suspension rates said the data is inaccurate because they made a reporting error in submitting data to the office for civil rights.

The report also highlights the charter schools that suspend students at the highest rate for each subgroup. The Center for Civil Rights Remedies published a similar analysis of suspension rates at traditional public schools last year.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.