The Charter Expulsion Flap: Who Speaks for the Strivers?

By 01/09/2013

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Predictably, the anti-reform crowd is having a field day with Sunday’s Washington Post article (and related video) reporting the relatively high rate of student expulsions in D.C.’s charter school sector. There’s some legitimacy to this exercise in schadenfreude, considering how many of us reformer types have used the success of high-flying “no excuses” charter schools to bludgeon middling (or worse) district schools with the accusation that “if the charters can do it, so can you.” The retort—well-founded, in my view—is that most if not all of these high-flying charters aren’t serving the same population of kids as their traditional public school peers. They inevitably do a bit of creaming (even if unintentionally) on the front end and a number of them push out disruptive students on the back end. Apples-to-apples comparisons are made difficult by this “selection bias.”

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In my view, we should admit—even celebrate—this phenomenon and be proud of the charter schools that are identifying and serving high-potential low-income students—kids who are committed to using education to escape poverty and are often supported in that effort by supportive parents.

The reason to celebrate these schools and the role they play is because the traditional system has been downright hostile to the needs of such striving children and families—as have been many charter critics. Magnet “exam schools,” such as those recently profiled by Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett, are viewed with suspicion; tracking or ability grouping is seen as elitist; any effort to provide special classes, environments, or challenges for motivated or high-achieving kids is cast as perpetuating inequality—even when all the kids are poor, and even though there’s a ton of evidence that high achievers do best around other high achievers.

And now these “social justice” types want to berate schools for asking disruptive students to leave. For sure, there should be checks on pushing kids out willy-nilly. Thankfully, charter officials in D.C. are already on the case, publicizing discipline data and prodding the handful of schools with sky-high expulsion and suspension rates to find better approaches.

But let’s not forget about the needs (even rights) of the other kids to learn. Isn’t it possible that U.S. public schools have gone too far in the direction of accommodating the disruptors at the expense of everyone else? Been guilty of “defining deviancy down,” in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words? As Eduwonk Andy wrote yesterday, it’s probably because charter schools are willing (and able) to enforce discipline that they are so popular with parents. That wouldn’t be true if they had to retain chronic disrupters.

To be sure, this raises tough questions for the system as a whole. As I said in the Washington Post video, there are reasons to be concerned that district schools will become the last resort for the toughest-to-serve kids.

But in life there are trade-offs, and I would be willing to accept a somewhat less ideal outcome for the most-challenged students if it meant tremendously better life outcomes for their peers.

Misguided notions of “equity” have turned many public school systems into leveling leviathans. We shouldn’t let the same happen to charters, the last salvation of the strivers.

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Comment on this article
  • JB says:

    There’s tons of evidence that “education by osmosis” doesn’t work (that putting child with high ability, good apptitude and motivation with those who lack ability, impulse control and manners-ie putting the smart in the the dim aint gonna make the dim any brighter.) Where is this evidence? We’ve had 40 years of BS and there’s “tons” of evidence. Heya Petrilli put on your “Paul Revere” hat-show us those “tons of evidence” in fact make it a mission.
    In for the penny….

  • Noel Hammatt says:

    When we actually have data on the students attending charter schools, especially students who were in public schools as well and have standardized test scores, what we find is that the same students who are high=-achieving in the charters were also high-achieving in the public schools, on average. What most charter supporters will not admit to, is that the charters offer a way to remove a child from all the other students, for whatever reasons parents might have, that attend the public schools. And given the recent case where charters claimed to NOT be public, when they thought it was to their benefit, and your article, it becomes clear that charters really want to be exclusive private schools, able to pick and cream and create their student body to fit their own desires. Regardless of whether those desires are legitimate goals for the public dollars. In New Orleans, in NYC and Chicago, special needs children are removed. In some schools race and income are clearly the determinants of who gets into, and stays, in a charter school. It is nice to see charter school supporters now admitting the lies that they told in order to OPEN charters in legislatures across the country.

  • […] a lot about the role that elitism plays in the education reform movement since the appearance of a remarkable blog post by Michael Petrilli, “one of the nation’s foremost education analysts.” Petrilli, […]

  • Ted Chambers says:

    So let’s be clear about this. When there are problems at traditional schools it’s the unions and the teachers who are the problem. But at the charter schools it’s the kids who are the problem. At least the 50% who require suspensions.

  • Ted Cook says:

    So I take it that ALL the D.C. high schools didn’t offer AP or IB programs. Looks like Thurgood Marshall just did what is successful everywhere else, which is segregate the top students in advanced classes. I don’t see that as any more elitist than what goes on at the shining examples of America’s best public high schools.

    Segregation by ability level is what AP and IB are all about. Maybe it is elitist, but it works, and everyone does it. Who would argue otherwise?

  • Daya says:

    The problem is as follows:

    Charter schools are not admitting to the creaming and attrition. They are acting as though the public schools are not dealing with their left-overs even after voucher money is at the charter.

    Once the disruptive and at-risk students are put out, where do they go? They are back at the neighborhood PUBLIC school. Lord forbid they transfer mid year. Then this child who knows nearly nothing is put in the class of a god-awful public school teacher who cannot do anything but teach that child.

    I have been the neighborhood public school teacher who has gotten that child. I have tried to rush retention paperwork after spending what little time I had with the child trying to get him to level.

    It is very unfair to close the schools that become an educational home for the children that charters discard. I have seen children come to public schools having left failed charters or after having left for whatever reason. I have seen these kids bloom under the tutelage of experienced teachers, ones who have been around the block enough times to know not to completely buy into whatever pendulum swing is en vogue.

    If it really is about the kids, how can we value one over another based on a child’s drive or motivation? What’s more, if the kids already knew the material, what do we even need teachers and any kind of school for? One of the things that makes America great is the opportunity for each child to have an education. Teachers, though evaluated based on student test scores, don’t get to choose their classes; charter schools, evaluated on similar criteria, shoul not get to choose theirs either. Education is for ALL.

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