Within five years, charter school enrollment in Washington, D.C., could grow to include 46 percent of the public school population, according to a panel charged with reviewing finance inequities between the District’s public and public charter schools. The current charter enrollment of 32,000, already 41 percent of the population, could increase by as much as 10 percent next year alone. But while the panel didn’t find the funding solutions it sought, its enrollment projections remind us that the extended reach of charter schools in D.C. brings with it obligations that some charters are falling short in fulfilling.

D.C. charter school enrollment, already 41 percent of the public school population, could increase by as much as 10 percent next year alone.

Disciplinary data compiled by the D.C. Public Charter School Board show, for instance, that the District’s charter schools collectively resort to expulsions and 10-day suspensions more quickly than D.C. Public Schools. One school in particular, Friendship Collegiate Academy-Woodson, reportedly expelled 8 percent of its students—102 of 1,231 students—last year alone. While many schools questioned the accuracy of the data, even conservative estimates show some charters remove students from school at higher rates than their traditional school counterparts.

It is more conceivable now than ever that charter schools could ultimately educate a majority of D.C.’s public school students. But as they get closer to that milestone, charter operators will have to do more to counsel the pupils they’re too quick to remove from their campuses. Otherwise, they risk validating one of the biggest critiques of the school choice movement: the claim that charters provide a false sense of choice, turning away or expelling the hardest to teach.

Charter operators will have to do more to counsel the pupils they’re too quick to remove from their campuses.

Seven charter schools expelled at least five of their students during the 2010-11 school year, according to the charter school board’s data. Even if one accepted Friendship’s self-reported data over the charter board, the school still expelled at least 67 students during that time. Further, eight charter schools accounted for 310 suspensions that lasted 10 days or more.

It’s foolish to assume that one school can meet the needs of all students, and a school could do more educational harm to a child by keeping him in an environment that is a poor fit, not to mention the dangers and distractions posed to his classmates if the issues are behavioral. But traditional schools in D.C. largely have learned that expulsion is discipline best meted out as a last resort. When it is applied, D.C. Public Schools makes available alternative education programs to troubled students. The district is not a dumping ground for troubled charter students.

If the school district and the charter board are approaching equal market share, it is inevitable that the two systems will have more commonly shared goals. And if the two are to collaborate more on building the capacity for high-performing schools, as a consultant recommended recently to D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, then each must learn best practices from the other. With all the students collectively in their care, D.C. charters should do more to implement the best interventions that district schools exhaust before resorting to final judgment. Charters need their autonomy. But acting too quickly on suspensions and expulsions could lead policy makers to impose a more uniform system of discipline.

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