School Choice & Charters

U.S. Education Secretary Asks Charter Schools to Rethink Discipline Practices

By Sarah Tully — June 28, 2016 4 min read
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By Evie Blad. Cross-posted from Rules for Engagement.

U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. urged charter school leaders Tuesday to use the same innovative approach they’ve applied to issues like coursework and school design to rethink their approaches to school discipline and to cut back on student suspensions.

“Discipline is a nuanced and complicated issue,” King said in a prepared speech at the National Charter School Conference in Nashville. “Yet the public discussion of these issues is often binary -- pitting one extreme against another. It’s ‘zero tolerance’ or chaos. Authoritarian control or no discipline at all. So, I’ll say up front: I am not here to offer any hard-and-fast rules or directives; but I believe the goal for all schools should be to create a school culture that motivates students to want to do their best, to support their classmates and to give back to their community, and to communicate to our students and educators in ways big and small that their potential is unlimited.”

Charter school critics have often criticized the independently run public schools, saying they rely too heavily on punitive discipline practices to “push out” unsuccessful students. And civil rights advocates have complained that charter schools are often left out of state- and school-level policy changes and monitoring that have led to fewer suspensions in some school systems.

Charter School Suspension Data

In an analysis of federal data collected during the 2011-12 school year, researchers from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California Los Angeles found in March that, like district-run schools, charter schools suspend students of color and students with disabilities at higher rates than their peers who are white and without disabilities.

“The authors found suspension rates at about 5,000 charter schools were slightly higher than those at traditional public schools in most categories,” I wrote in a blog post at the time. “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.”

Recently released data from the 2013-14 school year shows suspensions have dropped in all public school sectors, King said, but disparities between different student groups remain.

“So my challenge to you is this: don’t get caught up in battles about whether charters are a little better or a little worse than average on discipline,” King said. “Instead, focus on innovating to lead the way for the sake of our students.”

King challenged charter schools to explore how issues like staff training, awareness of implicit bias, and the wording of discipline policies affect suspension rates. And he singled out some charter schools in his remarks, applauding their work on the issue: The Camino Nuevo Charter Academies in Los Angeles, which have weekly meetings of student success teams to discuss how to support struggling students; and the Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia and Camden, where new teachers complete summer training on restorative practices, student trauma, and culturally responsive teaching.

As part of its efforts on school discipline, the Education Department has supported the creation of school discipline resources for charter schools by the National Charter Schools Resource Center that include professional development tools, examples of best practices and a “tool kit” for educators.

“A group of national charter school partners is collaborating with the department to support charter schools’ adoption of guiding principles and best practices for school climate and approaches to discipline that strengthen the school community,” the federal agency said in a news release. “Organizations on the steering committee include NewSchools Venture Fund, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Charter School Growth Fund, the Black Alliance for Educational Options and Democrats for Education Reform.”

School Discipline Has Been a Major Focus for the Obama Administration

The Obama administration has made school discipline a major focus of its civil rights agenda.

In 2014, the Education Department teamed with the U.S. Department of Justice to release first-of-its kind guidance to inform public schools that school discipline policies that lead to higher suspension rates for some groups of students may run afoul of federal civil rights laws, even if they were written without discriminatory intent.

The guidance resulted from the work of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a collaboration that the two federal agencies launched in 2011 to address what’s known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the term critics use for policies that they say result in unnecessary and inappropriate referrals from schools to the criminal justice system. Advocates for school-discipline reform have argued that such policies disproportionately impact minority racial and ethnic groups.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education John King chatted with Education Week earlier this month. --Swikar Patel/Education Week.

Related reading on school discipline and charter schools:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.