Will Charters Really Try to Replace Suspensions With Win-Win Alternatives?

A year ago, the Oklahoma City Public School System (OKCPS) was stunned when the size of our racial "discipline gap" was revealed in Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap? by Daniel Losen et. al. of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles. The Oklahoma Gazette's Ben Felder was correct in reminding us of the words of Jonah Edelman, co-founder of Stand for Children, who "wrote in a column for The Daily Beast last year. 'This is the No. 1 civil rights issue of our time.'" The OKCPS used the report as an opportunity to move beyond punishment when enforcing our district's code of conduct.

Oklahoma City may or may not have acted too quickly in a dramatic effort to cut suspensions without creating enough of an alternative system for the schools facing the greatest challenges. Even if the 90% low-income district had been able to take more time to plan and to fund the socio-emotional supports needed to replace punitive measures, the rapid move toward positive alternatives would have been a challenge.

The fundamental problem faced by OKCPS schools that serve every child who comes in their doors is that the extreme proliferation of charters and magnet schools has created impossible challenges for schools that have less than $9000 in per student funding. In a metropolitan area of more than a million persons, families can choose from 24 school districts, as well as OKCPS magnet and charter schools. Worse, state funding has been cut by about one-fourth and deeper cuts are scheduled for next year.

The result is about 5,000 high school students with no choice but to attend neighborhood schools with intense concentrations of kids from generational poverty, who have often been terribly traumatized. In 2010, Oklahoma City had 20,000 children being raised by grandparents, foster parents, or other guardians; most attended neighborhood schools in a district that is up to 46,000 students.

Now, the New York Times reports that the Center for Civil Rights Remedies analyzed the data of nearly 5,000 charters and it reports that:

Based on data from the 2011-12 school year, the report found that charter schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels suspended 7.8 percent of students, compared with 6.7 percent of students in noncharter schools. Among students with disabilities, charter schools suspended 15.5 percent of students, compared with 13.7 percent at noncharters. At the extreme end, there were 235 charter schools that suspended more than half of their students with disabilities.

Even in elementary schools, "less than a third of charter schools suspended more than 10 percent of black students, while at the high school level, close to 40 percent of charter schools suspended one in four or more of black students enrolled that year." Since the strictest schools, those who proclaim "No Excuses!," tend to be the most racially segregated, it is particularly worrisome that, "Black students were more likely to be suspended at even higher rates when enrolled in segregated schools, with high concentrations of African-American pupils."

The Times further explains, "Advocates for the disabled were particularly concerned about the higher rates of suspension at charters, given that charter schools enroll a lower proportion of students with disabilities than traditional public schools." It cites the senior staff lawyer at the National Disability Rights Network who says, "So these are the children who manage to get in who are being suspended."

So, how do test-driven, competition-driven reformers respond to this new report about the civil rights movement of the 20th century?

Nationally, reformers claim that the numbers aren't so bad. They forget, however, that charters rarely accept and retain the students facing the greatest challenges. The kids who have endured the most trauma (or multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACEs]) are much less likely to apply to No Excuses charters. Even so, the suspension rate for charter students is 14% higher than noncharters. The suspension rate for special education students is 16% higher.

The higher suspension rates for special education students are especially relevant to the OKCPS because it is debating a once-secret plan to dramatically expand charters. Proponents of the plan tout the good outcomes posted by two charters: the high-poverty Hupfeld Academy and the low-poverty John Rex Academy. But, according to the OKCPS Statistical Profile (2015), they serve about 1/3rd as many special education students as the elementary schools that charters would replace. Moreover, they cite OKC's KIPP Reach, which not only has a much lower percentage of low-income students than neighborhood middle schools, (76% vs 90+%) but it only serves about 1/3rd as many special education students.

By means of comparison, KIPP does not come remotely close to serving as many high-challenge middle school students as my old schools of John Marshall and Centennial. But, the OKC KIPP had a total enrollment of 315 and it had 189 out-of-school suspensions. My former schools enrolled a total of 581 middle school students and had 217 out-of-school suspensions. In other words, despite all of its advantages, KIPP's suspension rate per enrollee was about 75% higher than my schools.

In a city full of secondary school charters, only Santa Fe South H.S. comes close to serving as many low-income students as OKC neighborhood schools, and it earned a B+ on the School Report Card. But, Santa Fe South M.S. earned a D+. One explanation for the differing outcomes may be that the high school serves about 1/3rd fewer IEP students than the middle school. Both serve about half as many IEP students as neighborhood high and middle schools.

Until recently, I'd been focusing on how to learn from the OKCPS effort to cut suspensions, how to improve our system of providing supports for struggling students, and how to keep the effort up next year when huge budget cuts are enacted. This underfunded process has been excruciating in many schools, but it is on track to reduce suspensions by less than 20%. (The trajectory of the suspension reduction indicates that they may be reduced by significantly less than 20%)

This experience raises the question of what it would take for charters to reduce their suspensions by 14 to 16%. Even if they reversed the disciplinary part of their business models, and promised to cut their suspension rates and made good faith efforts to do so, would they be capable of cutting suspensions as much as the OKCPS has?

I had hoped that Oklahoma City would respond to the difficulty of the challenge by emulating New York City's recent effort where 19 district and charter schools will share best practices around restorative justice discipline programs and instruction for English language learners. Maybe that is still a possibility.

But, that brings us to the most important questions in regard to the charterization plan that should have been asked. Even if we were not hamstrung by the huge budgetary shortfall, how could Oklahoma City hope to establish an unknown but large number of high-quality charters? (The first wave of new charters could amount to about 1/6th of the number of neighborhood schools that now remain in the district after years of creating choice schools.) Even the local high-quality charters have no experience with neighborhood schools that serve all comers, so why should we believe they would be able to avoid excessive suspensions while dealing with challenges that they rarely face? And what will happen in the lesser-quality charters?

If some sort of miracle doesn't occur and Oklahoma City can't create a bunch of locally-grown charters, what sorts of charter management organizations (CMOs) will be willing to take over entire schools and not push out students with behavioral problems born of the pain they bring to school? How many other urban districts will face the same quandary that we have, and be forced to deal with the efforts to expand charters while creating humane alternative to suspensions?
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