DC Charter Schools Have “High and Disproportionate Discipline Rates” That DC Agencies Need To Coordinate About Pronto

Oh, that’s not ME saying that!

It’s the report that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published last week, called “District of Columbia Charter Schools: Multi-Agency Plan Needed to Continue Progress Addressing High And Disproportionate Discipline Rates.”

(Didn’t see or hear much about this report? Hmm–but here’s something.)

From November 2015 through January 2017, the GAO looked at suspension and expulsion data for DC charter schools from 2011 through 2014, with additional data from SY 2015-16.

Here are some conclusions:

Of DC’s 105 charter schools in SY 2015-16, 31 schools had suspension rates between 10% and 20%; 11 schools had suspension rates between 20% and 30%; and 5 schools had suspension rates greater than 30%.

This means that during the last school year, 47 DC charter schools–or nearly half–had suspension rates greater than 10%. And 15% of charter schools that year (16 total) suspended more than a fifth of their students.

DC charter schools’ suspension rates are high (about double) compared to the national average for charter schools. Suspension and expulsion rates in DC charter schools disproportionately affect black children (80% of DC charters’ population, receiving 93% of suspensions and 92% of expulsions) and kids with disabilities.

All of this tracks along the (not quite as awful) performance of DCPS for suspensions, which was not examined.

The report concluded that the education agencies involved–the DC public charter school board, the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE), and the deputy mayor for education (DME)–need to develop an immediate plan to address charter school discipline issues, along with better data gathering about suspensions by the charter board.

Ironically, the charter board, in a December letter to the GAO after viewing a draft of the report, argued that by not including SY 2015-16 data in the first draft, real progress in reducing suspensions and expulsions in DC charter schools was obscured. In this final report, the GAO acknowledged this, noting that its analyses were updated with that SY 2015-16 data.

It also noted that doing so “did not materially change” its conclusions.

But in letters to the GAO after reviewing the draft report, both OSSE and the charter board took exception to the report’s conclusion that they have no coordinated plan to deal with expulsions and suspensions in DC charter schools. Both agencies took pains to explain that their lack of coordination and/or data sometimes was nothing they could do anything about!

The charter board, for instance, cited parts of the School Reform Act (which established charter schools in DC in 1995) as providing “a strong legal bulwark against the District government, including the public charter school board, mandating school disciplinary processes.” And in its response letter, OSSE noted that current law “does not provide OSSE clear authority to regulate” DC charter schools.

The charter board went even farther in its response letter, noting that since the report was being given to Congress, the GAO’s critique of the charter board’s inactions ensures “it ignores the law and thus the intent of Congress.”

This will get interesting, for sure, depending on how that charter funding lawsuit is decided, which is expected soon.

(Maybe we DC citizens don’t have the right to exercise any oversight of our charter schools–only the right to pay for them, no questions asked?)

In the grotesque parade of ironies that this report represents (not reported locally; highly vulnerable kids affected; no DC agency seeming responsible or apparently too legally tied up to do anything), perhaps the most grotesque was its publication amid the mayor’s and DME’s two recent proposals to increase enrollment at DC charter schools.

To wit: at Education Week, our mayor (as head of all public schools in DC) announced a walkability preference for charter schools in the lottery along with releasing closed DCPS schools for charters. At the same time, the deputy mayor for education has been pursuing a mobility proposal with the cross sector task force that would not actually address student mobility (and all its damaging sequelae), but simply increase enrollment at charter schools, by spreading enrollment of highly mobile students, who now most often enroll in DCPS.

During her announcement of the charter walkability preference, the mayor and her deputy referenced many people’s desire to increase “access” to “high-quality” schools. There was no mention of how high that quality is when a school suspends a third of its students—nor any way to account for it in the walkability preference weight. Nor was there any mention of the harmful effects of high suspension rates, which the GAO report noted might result in, well, student mobility.

Sadly, the people making those policies–mobility and walkability–had access to this study. Indeed, they had provided a lot of the data for this study!

And, except for the charter board, they’re supposedly in charge of all DC public schools–not any one sector of which has a monopoly on high quality.

The GAO report also mentioned something completely omitted from the mobility and walkability proposals, which was that some DC charter schools send students home for a full day rather than formally suspending them, thus avoiding having higher reported suspension rates. Although this violates DC law, the report noted that neither the charter board nor OSSE tracks or really monitors such practices.

Ironically, the DME’s mobility proposal seeks to address that lack of data in part, by tracking students and keeping accurate records on their mobility. But by making charter schools simply another option for those mobile students, rather than getting to root causes to reduce their mobility in the first place, the policy proposal ignores cause and effect entirely, along with the responsible use of that data–something that this report makes clear cannot be ignored.

In the end, this GAO report is less about practices at individual charter schools (or our sad rates of expulsions and suspensions) and more about how lacking our city’s oversight is, as exercised by the charter board; OSSE; and the DME together. That even includes data itself: “We determined that the school year 2013-14 FRPL [free and reduced price lunch] data for DC were not sufficiently reliable for our purposes,” said the report. “These FRPL data differed dramatically from the school year 2011-12 data and when we asked officials from OSSE . . . to corroborate these data, they reported having no confidence in the data they had reported.”

Sigh.

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