Rising to John King's Challenge

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Rising to John King's Challenge

Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. has called on charter schools to take the lead on rethinking school discipline. Speaking at the National Charter School Conference in Nashville on Tuesday, he said, "Don’t get caught up in battles about whether charters are a little better or a little worse than average on discipline. Instead, focus on innovating to lead the way for the sake of our students.” We appreciate Secretary King’s focus on solutions, not finger-pointing. And we agree that charter schools’ autonomy offers them the opportunity—and the responsibility—to lead on this issue. Our recent report shows how two cities with large numbers of charter schools, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, are working to implement common-sense discipline policies.

How Can Charter Schools and Districts Work Together to Promote Equitable Discipline?

Suspension and expulsion rates are too high in too many public schools, both charter and district. National data indicate the bar for what can get a student removed from school is alarmingly low: most out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent misbehavior like being disruptive, acting disrespectfully, or violating dress code. These subjectively determined infractions are much more commonly meted out to black and Hispanic students than to their white peers. Clearly, we need to find new policy solutions to address inappropriately harsh discipline practices. Two cities have risen to this challenge by tackling discipline policy collaboratively across both charter and traditional public schools—with compelling early results that show discipline numbers declining and engagement on discipline increasing. While political climate and governance vary from city to city, the approaches taken in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans offer important lessons that can translate to other cities.

Key takeaways on systemic strategies for fairer use of suspension and expulsion in schools:

  1. Being consistent and transparent in reporting suspensions and expulsions is a key first step toward productive citywide discipline conversations and better discipline policies and practices.
  2. Making sure discipline statistics are easy to find and offer apples-to-apples comparisons across schools allows parents to use them in choosing a school.
  3. Shaming schools and issuing top-down mandates doesn’t help schools adopt fairer discipline practices; providing schools with new ideas, training, and the needed support to change does.

What does this look like? In D.C., annual School Equity Reports identify schools with unacceptably high suspension and expulsion rates, while ongoing workshops and meetings between the city charter authorizing board and individual charters help schools change their policies. In New Orleans, a centralized expulsion system for charter and traditional public schools helps ensure more transparency and fairness (suspensions, however, fall outside the centralized approach). Neither city has “solved” the discipline challenge, which will require multiple strategies and many more players. But they represent an important step as the first citywide, cross-sector approaches to making discipline fairer for all public school students. Read Grappling With Discipline in Autonomous Schools: New Approaches From D.C. and New Orleans to learn more about how these two cities are driving school-level change through thoughtful, common-sense policies.

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