Reforming disciplinary practices in D.C. and New Orleans charter schools

A new case study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education examines how the cities of Washington, D.C., and New Orleans are approaching discipline so that suspensions or expulsions are “more appropriately and fairly applied while still respecting schools’ autonomy.”

The report describes how D.C.’s sole authorizer, the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB), was interested in reducing charter schools’ out-of-school suspensions and expulsions—likely in the wake of accusations that they were suspending or expelling students unfairly or more often than district schools. (Across the country, schools have also been accused of racial bias when they suspend “disproportionate” numbers of minority students.) So in partnership with DCPS and other city leaders, they decided to release “School Equity Reports” that document school-level data on suspensions, expulsions, student exit, and mid-year enrollment.

The authors found that between 2012–13 and 2014–15, the average suspension rate across all city schools dropped from 12 to 10 percent, and suspensions for students with special needs fell from 23 to 19 percent (they don’t have reliable baseline data from before then). Examining comparable schools from 2012 to 2014, additional analyses show that the citywide declines in short-term suspension rates (meaning less than ten days) were driven mostly by charter schools. Their short-term suspension rates declined by almost three percentage points relative to comparable schools—which is notable since they started with higher average suspension rates than DCPS schools. Charters also showed significant declines in the suspension rate of black students (patterns were similar for expulsions). In addition to the School Equity Reports, PCSB includes discipline data in its oversight of charters even though these data are not included in the performance dashboard to which schools are held accountable.

During the 2012–13 school year, New Orleans’s Recovery School District (RSD) started a centralized expulsion program that all of the city’s schools—either voluntarily or with coercion—joined eventually. It requires schools to use common criteria for expelling students (schools still control how they handle suspensions) and use the same process for student hearings; students must also receive instruction during the time they are expelled, as well as help re-enrolling when the time comes. The RSD is in charge of finding a placement after the hearing, which can include an alternative school or a return to the original school under probationary conditions. (Eventually, the RSD ended up opening three alternative schools.) The number of expulsions has been drastically reduced in NOLA from 2011 to 2014, though it is hard to quantify trends prior to 2011–12 because the data came from the Office of Civil Rights—and NOLA interviewees said OCR did not have accurate numbers. (Still, the rate declined from 3.8 expulsions per thousand students to 2.4 per thousand from 2011 to 2014.)

Although the authors of the report describe the threat to school autonomy and culture through these discipline initiatives, that danger appears minimized presumably because “community leaders rightly feel these schools must assume equal responsibility for serving all students.” Yet if we push too far in this direction, we run the danger of homogenizing charter schools like we did district schools—which is precisely why we created charters in the first place.

SOURCE: Betheny Gross, Sivan Tuchman, and Sarah Yatsko, "Grappling With Discipline in Autonomous Schools: New Approaches From D.C. and New Orleans," CRPE (June 2016).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.