Although most charter schools in the US don’t suspend a high number of students, those that do tend to suspend a higher percentage of the population of black students than of the population of white students enrolled at the school, according to new research out of the University of California, Los Angeles.
The comprehensive review of discipline policies at charter schools, as they relate to civil rights, was conducted by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA. By looking at data, which some schools have challenged, the study’s authors concluded that charter schools suspend students of color and students with disabilities at higher rates than other students. Blacks and students with disabilities are also suspended at higher rates in traditional public schools, but suspension rates at charters are slightly higher over all.
A few civil rights advocates have said charter schools rely too heavily on zero-tolerance discipline policies that lead to higher suspension rates and eventually to higher absenteeism and dropout rates, in addition to lower graduation rate.
The data used in the study was from 2011-12, the most recent available from federal sources, but it’s consistent with reports from around the country, including some as recently as last month.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported that although the suspension rates for black students have declined in Chicago Public Schools last year, the suspension rates for black students were still the highest of any racial group. Black students accounted for 39 percent of district-run and charter school students but 68 percent of 61,349 suspensions and 81 percent of expulsions in the 2014-15 school year, the Sun-Times reported.
“It’s clear that much progress has been made, but much work remains to reduce punitive discipline rates for African-American students,” the schools’ chief education officer was quoted as saying. “It’s a major priority for the district to increase the use of supportive and restorative practices that increase students’ learning time, and that is especially true in the case of students who face disproportionate rates of punitive discipline. We’ve made progress shifting the culture of the district, and we’ll remain focused on continuing to expand this holistic approach.”
The out-of-school suspension rates for black students are also dropping in Massachusetts, according to a February report in the Boston Globe. Charter schools, while they report some of the highest discipline rates in Massachusetts, are finding alternative approaches to student discipline more useful this year. Roxbury Preparatory Charter, City on a Hill Charter in Dudley Square, and City on a Hill Charter in New Bedford, for example, had the highest rates of out-of-school suspension statewide—between 35 percent and 40 percent—but those percentages were slightly lower than rates at those schools the year before.
In Pittsburgh, Blacks demonstrate higher rates of absenteeism, suspensions and dropouts, and lower rates of enrolling in advanced or honors courses, going on to post-secondary education, and finding family-sustaining jobs, in Pittsburgh as well in this current school year, the Tribune-Review reported.
“We’ve had a lot of staff trained to better understand this thing we call race, the impact that it can have on children of our schools, and what can happen when we do not admit that all of us have biases,” the paper quoted Superintendent Linda Lane as saying.
At the federal level, the US Education Department took action at the end of February toward addressing widespread disparities in the treatment of students of color with disabilities: the feds proposed a new rule to improve equity in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The nation’s special education law, IDEA, aims to ensure fairness in the identification, placement, and discipline of students with disabilities. Yet disparities persist, and students of color remain more likely to be identified as having a disability and face harsher discipline than their white classmates.
In order to address those inequities, IDEA requires states to identify districts with “significant disproportionality” in special education—that is, when districts identify, place outside the regular classroom, or discipline children from any racial or ethnic group at markedly higher rates than their peers. Hundreds of districts around the country with large racial and ethnic disparities go unidentified. For example, 876 school districts gave African-American students with disabilities short-term, out-of-school suspensions at least twice as often as all other students with disabilities for three years in a row. But, in 2013, states identified fewer than 500 districts in total with “significant disproportionality.”
“We have a moral and a civil rights obligation to ensure that all students, with and without disabilities, are provided the tools they need to succeed, regardless of background,” said then-acting US Secretary of Education John King. “IDEA exists for the purpose of ensuring that students get the unique services they need, and we owe it to them and to ourselves to uphold all of the law’s provisions.”