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.

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