The author of a new study on charter schools, civil rights and suspensions, says its time for charters to abandon the "broken windows" approach to discipline.
Jennifer Berkshire: Your new study on charter schools, civil rights and discipline hones right in on what seems like, um, kind of a big contradiction. That the self-proclaimed civil rights issue of our time so often seems to lead to a type of schooling that ends up violating students' civil rights. Am I right?
Dan Losen: The main thrust of the report is this concern that you're raising. That not only are there some really high-suspending charter schools, but that you have advocates for these kinds of schools resisting what is a really important discipline reform movement across the nation. Also, we have to be looking at school suspension rates when we're considering performance. We can't be making excuses or giving a pass to charter schools when we know there's a consensus that we shouldn't be suspending kids at really high rates because it's really harmful. What we see when we look at the data is that there are some really high-suspending charter schools that are embracing zero tolerance which they should be rejecting.
Berkshire: I've seen your study criticized as being *anti-charter,* but one of the really interesting things you uncovered in the data is that there are actually more charters that suspend very low numbers of kids than there are high-suspending schools.
Losen: There are plenty of charter providers that have rejected zero tolerance, and we essentially recommend that effective charter schools that are low suspending and are looking to increase diversity and getting good outcomes should be the subject of research and replication. One of the excuses you hear schools make, whether they're charters or not, is that *we just have to kick out these bad kids so that the good kids can learn.* In other words, there are no other choices besides zero tolerance, and the only other alternative is chaos. But the fact that there are more low-suspending charters than high-suspending charters is more proof positive that there are less discriminatory alternatives than policies and practices that produce sky-high suspension rates and large disparities, not only for Black kids compared to white kids or Latino kids compared to white kids but kids with disabilities.
Berkshire: You point out that many of the high-suspending charter schools embrace the edu-equivalent of *broken windows* policing. The irony is, of course, that broken windows policing itself is now widely blamed for the criminalization of communities of color, over policing and excessive force. So why would the same philosophy be acceptable in schools?
Losen: I just think it's outrageous that in creating a school climate that anyone would look to *broken windows* as their guiding principle, knowing that broken windows is a crime intervention theory that has clearly been associated with racial oppression in many communities, including Ferguson. The idea that, instead of looking at all of the research on child psychology and what works, they would decide that crime policy is what should govern how they set up their school climate suggests that they're thinking much more about children in a way that denigrates them and is highlighting that they're a potential criminal element. That's one of the reasons why the cover of our report features a young child behind a broken window.
Berkshire: In my adopted home state of Massachusetts, we have some of the highest performing charter schools in the country, but a number of them also rank high on the suspension scale, which is a metric that we're not supposed to talk about. The predominant narrative among public officials and charter school advocates here seems to be that whatever these schools are doing is working, so don't mess with them. Oh, and we should have a lot more of them.
Losen: Take a school like Roxbury Prep in Boston that suspended 57.8% of students with disabilities at least once, according to 2014-2015 data. Now that suggests to me that they should have been flagged along time ago and raises this question of what it means to say that a school is high performing. High performance should include a range of indicators, including whether a school is effective for ALL kinds of students. We should be looking for charter schools that have low suspensions, low attrition rates, and are also performing well academically. But we may miss out on what some good charters, and good non-charters are accomplishing, if the only thing that we really count or care about is the test scores. I have no specific proof, but I also worry that in some cases the *high performance* is artificially boosted by discouraging lower-performing students from staying enrolled, or even from applying in the first place.
Berkshire: The Every Child Succeeds Act includes a provision that requires states to look at students' conditions of learning, including the overuse of suspension. Does this mean that we're going to see more pressure on the high-suspenders to curb their high-suspending ways?
Losen: It's a very vague requirement. I'm concerned that through legislation or interpretation some states will say that in their state, charter schools are going to be exempt from some of the provisions of ESSA, including that one. In California, for example, charter schools are exempt from the state code of conduct that limits suspension. You might also see states set the N size for analysis or the metrics used for detecting problems in a manner that excludes charter schools. That to me is a big concern.