Editor's note: This is the first entry in our forum on charter school discipline practices. Mike Petrilli's introductory post is here.
The ongoing exchange about suspensions and expulsions in charter schools needs to be seen from the school’s perspective. As a school of choice, a charter has two obligations: to maintain a climate conducive to learning, as it promises the families who choose it, and to do all it can to meet the needs of the students it has admitted. These can provoke tension when individual children disrupt others' learning or threaten to tear down the norms of diligence that support instructional programs.
This tension is inherent to K–12 schools (even advantaged private ones). Some private schools protect their overall climate by quickly suspending or expelling kids who get out of line. But most, committed to the kids they have admitted, act much more deliberately. They give students help and many chances. Suspensions are never ruled out because they are very effective in getting some parents’ attention. But because they are understood as harmful, suspensions are brief and seldom repeated. If parents don’t respond the first time, the school tries something else.
Expulsions are never totally off the table for private schools, but they are seen as desperation moves and signs of failure. Expulsion has costs for schools as well as for students. Ironically, as private school heads acknowledge, the kids who pose challenges to a school’s climate and effectiveness are often the children and grandchildren of big donors. Schools are reluctant to suspend or expel such students and try hard to avoid it, though a school that lives by its principles tries equally hard to keep students from less influential families. As Rabbi Bernie Fox of the Northwest Yeshiva has said, the school head has a responsibility in every case to both the individual student and the school. There are consequences to such decisions, one way or the other.
Under these circumstances, private school leaders act as adults making difficult tradeoffs. The same should be the case for charter leaders. They shouldn’t be controlled by externally imposed policies like “no suspensions under any circumstances.” Nor should foundations make expulsions easier by giving schools money to offset lost revenues.
Charter schools can learn some lessons from private schools, but they mostly have to find their own way. Students are more diverse and less advantaged in charters than private schools; most private schools’ expectations for student behavior (and track records for backing them up) have been established over decades. Charter school leaders and teachers who started in traditional public schools also have to learn that student discipline is a high-stakes educational function, not just the administration of a behavioral code.
Like private schools, charters will need to find what works in the context of their missions, students, parents, etc. Climate, discipline, opportunity restoration, and restorative practices need to be subjects of empirical study in the charter movement.
Schools and CMOs need to share experience, and researchers need funding to analyze results, paying equal attention both to what schools have done for the individual kids who run into trouble and to the consequences of those actions for school climate and instructional quality.
Paul Hill is the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.