A price tag on misbehavior? An embattled Chicago charter network isn’t alone

A high-performing charter network in Chicago cherished by
Mayor Rahm Emanuel got some lowbrow attention this week. The city’s esteemed
Noble Network of Charter Schools has been charging fees of children who rack up
a sizable share of demerits, and a group that would never be confused as a
friend of charters and choice thought
it would bring some attention to the practice
. The Chicago media have
lapped it up, mocking Emanuel’s previous reference to the school’s “secret
sauce” for student success while pointing now to evidence that Noble is
nickel-and-diming poor kids. But a cursory search through any number of
Catholic school codes of conduct shows that Noble’s policies aren’t so
extraordinary.

A cursory search through Catholic school codes of conduct shows that Noble’s policies aren’t so
extraordinary.

Let’s set aside the fees for a moment and consider the
“sauce” that makes up this particular charter network. State achievement test
data show that Noble beats the public school test score average. Families have
lined up for entry and the school has a long waiting list, despite – or maybe
because of – its strict disciplinary policies. It boasts a 90 percent
graduation rate, compared to 54 percent for Chicago Public Schools, and 91
percent of its graduating seniors go on to college.

It also puts a price tag on misbehavior. The student who
collects four demerits in two weeks will be sent to detention and charged $5.
Twelve detentions require a behavior modification class that costs $140. A
group called Parents United for Responsible Education, or PURE, tallied all the
fees the school has levied over three years and called a press conference
Monday to announce the total: $386,745.

Julie Woestehoff and the folks at PURE, who identify charter
and parental choice policies as “phony,” charged Noble with employing a
“dehumanizing discipline system” that picks the pockets of already
disadvantaged families. Yet the practice of levying fines for misbehavior has
precedence in some Catholic schools. Give credit to the Chicago Sun-Times for calling the Chicago Archdiocese to determine
whether the age-old institution of detention in Catholic schools comes with a
cost. A spokesman with the archdiocese said that was not the case in Chicago,
but the reporter shouldn’t have stopped there.

Ninety miles away, in Rockford, Illinois, St. Edward School fines
students $5 for behavior that includes fighting, foul language, or
“disrespect.” The money collected goes to existing scholarship funds. Mount
Notre Dame High School in Cincinnati
charges students $3 for chewing gum;
$4.25 if the fine remains unpaid after one week. Students caught with a cell
phone or cigarette (not necessarily both) at Mount
Michael Benedictine School
in Elkhorn, Nebraska, will be fined $25 for
their first offense, $50 for their second, $75 for the third.

There are dozens of other examples, but is there an
expectation that a seat in detention at a public
school like Noble shouldn’t come with a fee? Judging by the reaction this
week, a level-headed observer might say yes. But our conversation might be
better informed by another layer of context. Few would accuse Catholic schools
of being soft on discipline, or sloppy in student outcomes. And in many ways,
the Noble charter network emulates the best of what makes many urban Catholic
schools successful.

Noble CEO Michael
Milkie was careful to call the charges “fees” not “fines,” and the money goes
to cover the costs of detention. This is splitting hairs, and the semantics
will only exacerbate the scorn heaped on a charter that stands among the best
of any public school in Chicago. There is something to be said for asking
families to put some skin in the game, especially if their children are the
ones generating the costs associated with discipline. But until Noble is ready
to defend the practice proactively, it will remain on the defensive. And it
can’t rely on Chicago’s media to supply the context.

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