Charter schools are not pushing out low-performing students

strictdiciplineEarlier this week, University of Illinois Professor Chris Lubienski penned a thoughtful piece on charter schools and social justice. His central concern was markets could undermine the social justice aims held by many charter school advocates. Rather than focusing on providing quality education, Lubienski asserts charter schools may be self-selecting the best students and, in particular, weeding out the most disadvantaged students.

While the concerns are valid, the evidence against charter schools is scant and anecdotal and does not allow anyone to draw broad conclusions.

For example, Lubienski cited a recent story from the New York Daily News that showed the Success Academy charter school network has higher suspension rates than surrounding district schools. The anecdote highlighted a special needs student who had difficulty reading and threw temper tantrums in school – which included physically attacking a teacher and throwing objects. Ultimately that family withdrew from the school – something they wouldn’t have been able to do in a traditional public school without a lawyer or school choice – because the mother was “tired of fighting” with school officials.

In another case, Success Academy admitted it didn’t have the means to comply with a special needs student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and recommended the student be transferred to a public school that specialized in special needs education. The parent ultimately decided to stay and push the school to follow the IEP.

Suspensions, counseling and repeated parent-teacher meetings would have to be the most passive aggressive means of getting rid of bad students and probably not all that effective. A more effective means might simply be to expel the students outright.

The Success Academy charters aren’t the only ones that have been accused of pushing out students. Critics have questioned why charter schools in the District of Columbia expel students at far higher rates than district schools. These charter schools – which enroll 41 percent of all students in D.C. – expelled 227 students in 2011-12 while the district schools expelled just three students.

The difference is substantial, but unless you have mind reading powers (or are a serial pessimist), it’s still a pretty broad jump to assume the strict disciplinary procedures are intended to weed out low-performing students rather than promote safety and good citizenship.

As it turns out, there is no conspiracy theory here. For one, D.C. public schools banned themselves from expelling students back in 2009 unless the student committed a violent crime or drug offense, or brought a gun to school. Instead of expelling disruptive and bad behavior students, D.C. simply transfers these students to other schools, including to “alternative schools” which focus on troubled students.

Further complicating the equation is the fact that D.C. doesn’t even track the number of students who are forced out of selective public schools to return to their neighborhood school because of poor grades or attendance problems. In other words, expulsion rates aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons since public schools can transfer students to other schools while most charter schools cannot.

Nationwide, public schools suspended 6.8 percent of students but only expelled 0.2 percent of all students. However 1.1 percent of all students are attending alternative schools (this category does not include special needs or vocational schools).

How does this compare to those strict discipline charter schools in D.C.? Expelled students in D.C. charters amounted to 1 percent of the charter school student population – slightly less than the combined alternative school attendance and expulsions from U.S. public schools.

Furthermore, while the accusation that charter schools weed out low-performing students through disciplinary procedures hasn’t been studied much, a recent report finds no such occurrence with charter schools in one large district. In fact, the same study found low-performing students were up to 5 percent more likely to transfer out of their traditional public school.

Even if the worst fears are true – and a few bad charter schools are abusing rules to weed out low-performing students – we must ask ourselves if it’s worth condemning an entire system, and the 99 percent of students (most of whom are low-income) who remain enrolled. There are many earnest concerns about charter schools and school choice, but arguing from a few anecdotes while assuming the worst motivations isn’t the best way to shape education policy.

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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.


Shouldn’t your post read, I don’t think charter schools are pushing out poor performing students? Teachers all over the nation report that after FTE time (when the money is paid out) their schools get an influx of poorly prepared charter school students, anecdotal I admit but let’s looks your post.

First the Success Schools, it was hardly just two students, according to the NYDaily news 22% of kids are suspended and dozens were forced out.

Then there is the DC charter schools who not only expels more kids but has more kids drop out than their public school counterparts. The DC student mobility project reveals that 6.6% of charter school students drop out over the course of a year.

All schools have some degree of mobility but the study reports essentially no overall attrition from the regular public schools. Expulsion undoubtedly counts for some of the charter school losses but low performing kids being counseled out also undoubtedly play a role as well. Public schools not charter schools take all the kids that show up at their doors and do their best to educate them.
I guess you could chalk it up to bad luck or coincidence.

But what about the Florida Charter School Superintendent who admits he counsels out underachievers and revels in it.

Then don’t get me started about KIPP which counsels out so many of their kids.

The thing is our worst fears are true but it’s not a few charter schools that do it, it is a lot of charter schools and when you give them cover it does the few that are doing things the right way a disservice.

Patrick R. Gibbons

Hi Chris G,

Worst case scenario seems to be that charter schools do not push out low performing students at a higher rate than traditional public schools.

Public schools do not take all the kids that show up at the door, that is simply a myth.

1). Kids outside the zone are turned away and parents can be jailed or fined for enrolling a child in a school outside their assigned attendance zone.

2). Inside the zone kids are suspended, expelled and forced to transfer to alternative schools at a rate similar to charter school expulsions (this doesn’t include the number of kids who a forced out and then enroll in charters too).

3) Public schools send special needs kids off to special needs schools as well (I’m not against this either, I think its important to provide them specialized services as needed).

4) Magnet schools and schools for the gifted most certainly do not have to take every student. Back in Nevada, the state ran a gifted school at UNR. The admission requirement was scoring 99th percentile on the IQ test. A similar style school operated near the state capital in Oklahoma City. The state spend 2x more per pupil on these gifted kids than the students at the traditional public schools too.

I enjoyed reading your post, and you made some good points. Unfortunately, it appears that you only deal with the examples I used in my blog post to illustrate the patterns, and did not actually read about the more comprehensive evidence I outline in the article on which it was based (and on which I was invited to blog). Again, you are trying to narrow the discussion to only consider children expelled from charter schools. This is very different than the question I raise about which children are served in charter schools (which touches on issues of enrollment, marketing, location, etc.) — an issue on which there is much empirical evidence. Most importantly, you miss the main point about the incentives that we put on charters, and how that impacts their behavior.

The title of the blog is, Charter Schools are not pushing out poor performers. Well I did refute the points mentioned but I sourced them and then I added other sources that illustrated that it is an ongoing problem.

It seems to me you want your answer to be right and you aren’t interested in having the right answer and you aren’t interested in letting your readers have all the facts so they can be informed when making up their minds.

I like to think if charter schools were doing a good job I would be all for them, however the evidence says they as a group are not.

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