The discrepancy underscores the freedom that charters — publicly funded schools that operate independently of the traditional school system — have from school system policies. That autonomy defines the charter movement and gives its schools considerable latitude to decide what student behavior they will — and won’t — tolerate.
Parents and activists say some charters expel excessively and with little oversight, shedding disruptive students who then end up enrolling mid-year in the traditional school system, which is legally bound to take them.
The D.C. school system can compel students to transfer from one school to another. But unlike charters, the school system cannot truly expel anyone because of its mandate to serve all students. “Expelled” students are sent to an alternative middle school or high school for one year. The school system does not expel elementary students, officials said.
Many charter schools — 60 out of 97 campuses — did not expel students in 2011-12. That same school year, seven expelled at least 10 students.
YouthBuild, a school that targets high school dropouts and students older than 16, expelled 30 that year, nearly one-third of its enrollment. Friendship’s Collegiate Academy expelled 56 students, or 5 percent of its student body.
Charter advocates deny that the schools are trying to push out challenging students. They point out that D.C. charters enroll a higher proportion of poor children than the traditional public schools and that poor children often come to class with greater needs than their middle-class peers. Charters are open to all students across the city, with admission by lottery if there is more demand than space available.
“My goal is zero” expulsions, said Shawn Hardnett, an administrator for Friendship Public Charter School, which last year expelled 70 students across its six campuses, which are located in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.
“At the same time, I have to be reasonable and wise about the fact that there are kids who are coming to our schools with behaviors that are very simply unacceptable and unsafe,” Hardnett said.
The District’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education in August proposed rules that would govern discipline policies at all public schools, including charters. They called for minimizing suspension and expulsion of children 13 and younger and outlined due process rights for students. Charter leaders mounted a vigorous opposition, saying the federal law that established D.C. charters frees them from such local mandates.