Charter School Collecting Steep Disciplinary Fines From Low-Income Families: Report

Story updated with comment from Noble Charter Network

An alternative school program championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel is drawing ire from students and parents for collecting nearly $390,000 in disciplinary fines from low-income students for minor infractions like chewing gum or failing to make eye contact with teachers.

A report released Monday by the Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) and Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) reform collectives accuses the Noble Street Charter Network of profiting from their elaborate disciplinary code to the tune of $386,745 over the last three years, according to a press release. During the last school year, discipline fines earned Noble $188,647, a figure that has expanded annually as the charter network spreads across the city.

The schools' harsh disciplinary code, which charges students $5 for minor infractions and up to $280 for misbheavior in the classroom, discriminates against students and surreptitiously raises the cost of public education, the report states. Ninety percent of Noble students are low-income.

"Noble is forcing low-income parents to choose between paying the rent and keeping their child in school," Donna Moore, parent of a student at a Noble school, said in a statement released by the advocacy groups. "This is a hidden tax on Chicago's Black and Latino families, and it's wrong."

For students with repeated infractions, or families unable to pay the steep fines for missing buttons from uniforms or openly carrying "flaming hot" snacks, the school dishes out punishments including required behavior modification classes with a $140 price tag, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. In extreme cases, students are held back or barred from graduation.

In a statement, Noble Network of Charter Schools said their public schools are among the highest performing in the city, "in part, due to our culture which sets high expectations for behavior."

"The discipline code allows us to be sure that the classroom is not disrupted for the vast majority of students and that those students who don’t follow the rules, learn that behavior has consequences," the statement read. "Self-discipline is an important lesson for students as they prepare for success in college and beyond."

Julie Woestehoff, a parent member of PURE and Huffington Post blogger, told the newspaper that those high stakes can put students at a dangerous disadvantage when paired with a forbidden conduct list "as long as my arm." For many of the 473 students who transferred out of Noble schools last summer, VOYCE and PURE allege that disciplinary fines were a factor.

Hundreds of parents, students and education reform advocates protested the disciplinary policy at Chicago Public School headquarters Monday, ABC Chicago reports.

"The way to make schools safe is not to fine; that forces parents to choose between sending us to school and putting food on our plates," Timothy Anderson, a VOYCE representative, said at the protest.

In-school discipline has been a hotly-contested topic this year, as Chicago Public Schools works to re-write their Student Code of Conduct. Project NIA, a Chicago youth advocacy group, issued a report late last month that slammed CPS for using in-school police officers to transition behavioral infractions out of public schools' purview and into the juvenile justice system, creating a "schools-to-prison pipeline" that had a minor impact on schools while severely damaging the prospects of individual students.

In light of disappointing charter school performance returns that found the programs don't consistently outperform traditional public schools, some charter opponents are accusing the schools of targeting students likely to bring down their average test scores. Illinois was recently forced to abandon a similar statewide practice that pulled low-performing high school juniors from taking certain standardized tests last year.

"Noble gets its test results from forcing poor families out of its schools," alleged Jasmine Sarmiento, a student at Kelvyn Park High School, in a statement issued by VOYCE. "Does Mayor Emanuel really want more families in debt and more youth in the street? That's not a model that Chicago should be following."

CPS announced in late 2011 that 12 new charter schools would be introduced in "high-need" South and West side neighborhoods over the next two years, several of which will follow the Noble School model.

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