Charter schools, regulation, and discipline

Frederick Hess and Michael McShane of the American Enterprise Institute have a column at USA Today warning that the freedom and dynamism of charter schools is under threat from mounting regulation. Despite many charters’ success in educating children from disadvantaged backgrounds, “creeping bureaucratization and regulation are endangering the entire charter school movement,” according to Hess and McShane. “[I]f this regulatory impulse is left unchecked,” they warn, “it’s all too possible that the high achieving charter school of today could become the failing public school of tomorrow.”

For their evidence, Hess and McShane point to long charter applications and admissions lottery regulations in Washington, D.C., and to required teacher evaluation metrics in several states. But they also point to regulations controlling charter schools’ disciplinary systems in New Orleans.

The disciplinary environment in charter schools is one of the most controversial elements of the education reform movement. To proponents of “no excuses” charters, strict discipline is essential to create a structured and secure environment. It’s necessary to signal to kids coming from communities rife with dysfunction that the school takes learning seriously and will not tolerate disruption.

To skeptics, however, the disciplinary control of these schools can be excessive, bordering on militant. They suggest that charter schools get away with disciplining low-income minority kids in ways that would never be tolerated in white middle-class schools. The Guardian‘s Dana Goldstein argues that

it’s difficult to imagine large numbers of middle-class parents ever accepting the disciplinary strategies popular at “no excuses” schools like KIPP: students marching through the hallways in military silence, required to sit with their limbs arranged just-so and with their eyes constantly locked on the teacher; and, in one KIPP school, isolating misbehaving children in a padded, windowless chamber the size of a walk-in closet, for up to 20 minutes at a time.

The disciplinary issue became particularly incendiary in New Orleans. Last fall, a student-led backlash against charter schools centered in part around overly strict disciplinary policies. Two of the schools at the heart of the protest had suspended over 60 percent of their students at some point during the previous year. Parents complained of an environment in these schools akin to a “military boot camp.” Aggrieved students filed a written petition raising issue with “detentions or suspensions for not walking on the taped lines in the hallway, for slouching, for not raising our hands in a straight line.”

New Orleans clearly had a serious problem on its hands. Action needed to be taken, and I doubt many of us would lament the loss of charters’ freedom to impose these sorts of draconian reprimands. Many of us, apparently, except Hess and McShane.

Why does this matter? It’s about more than just disciplinary proceedings. Rather, it implicates the very purpose of charter schools in our education system.

Traditionally, charter schools were pitched as a way for reformers with new ideas to try out novel educational methods in a small setting to see if they were fit for broader adoption by the public school system. As a recent New York Times article said, “A primary rationale for the creation of charter schools . . . was to develop test kitchens for practices that could be exported into the traditional schools.”

If charters are playing by a completely different set of rules from the rest of the education system, then it is hard to see how they make for a valuable test kitchen for what we can import into the rest of our schools. If charter school disciplinary systems are too strict for the public school system as a whole, then this just clouds the question of whether these schools’ success can be replicated in traditional public schools.

Hess and McShane, however, conceive of charters in a different way. “Charters were conceived as an alternative to underperforming public schools,” they write. “This allowed educators and entrepreneurs space to create new schools and new teaching models.”

This is undoubtedly true — charters are indeed an element of pluralist school choice to give parents more options. And they are meant to cater to fresh ideas and innovative models. But this is only part of the story. Hess and McShane leave out the part where charters are meant not just as alternatives to public schools, but to be testing ideas that can be scaled to the rest of the public school system. They are meant to be seeds that can spread, not just island alternatives.

According to the Times, the hope for an exchange of ideas across charters and district schools has, for the most part, proven elusive. A sense of competition between the two breeds of schooling has steadily heightened in the volatile education politics in New York. Many traditional public schools see a charter model that’s dependent on nonunionized teachers, extended school days and years, and strict discipline as having little in the way of workable solutions for the school system as a whole.

Yes, the mission for charters is to experiment with public education with the aid of relaxed regulation. But we must also identify what types of regulations we are willing to sacrifice and which ones we hold dear in order to give charters a worthwhile laboratory to operate in.

Discipline strikes me as a policy worth standardizing across schools. Sure, some charters might elect to have somewhat tougher disciplinary policies to approximate the rigor of a prep academy or a private school. But within reason, and within bounds set by public agencies. Discipline beyond the bounds of what we’d implement in our broader school communities weakens the value of charter schools. It skews their academic results by allowing for subtle or blatant push out of difficult students. But it also infects the integrity of the experiment, limiting our ability to bring the success of charters to scale.

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