With her devotion to charters and her perch at the top of the educational bureaucracy, DeVos, who took office after a tough confirmation hearing in which her fitness was doubted, is well positioned to push efforts aimed at correcting the high and racially twisted disciplinary practices of Washington’s charter schools and to determine if similar patterns exist elsewhere.
A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report says suspension and expulsion rates for charters in the capital city are double the national rate and disproportionately high for black students and those with disabilities.
During the 2013-2014 school year, for example, “D.C charter schools had about a 13 percent suspension rate, while the national rate for all charter schools was about 6 percent,” the GAO reported. “This was also true for expulsions, with charter schools in D.C. reporting double the rate of charter schools nationally.”
The agency that oversees charter schools in the District acknowledges it has issues, but it also had problems with the GAO’s findings. In a response included in the report, the D.C. Public Charter School Board said the GAO “reaches some inaccurate conclusions and from these draws ill-advised recommendations” because it did not use more recent data.
Data from the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years show that “steady and significant progress has been made every year in reducing out-of-school discipline,” the board said in response.
If there is good news here, it’s only by comparison. D.C. charter suspension and expulsion rates did fall from the 2011-2012 to the 2013-2014 academic years. Also, the charter suspension rate is only a little higher than that of the city’s traditional public schools.
But that’s not good enough.
When D.C. charter schools kick students out, they are not allowed to return, the GAO reported. They generally transfer to a traditional public school.
“In contrast, D.C. traditional public schools generally do not expel students,” the GAO said. “Instead, D.C. traditional public schools generally use long-term suspensions (greater than 11 days) and temporarily transfer these students to an alternative middle and high school.”
It’s no surprise that the greater suspension and expulsion rates for charter schools fall heavily on black students. From preschool discipline and throughout the criminal justice system, studies have shown that black people are treated more harshly than white people for similar conduct.
The GAO “found that the rates of suspension for Black students in D.C. charter schools were about six times higher than the rates for White students and the rates for students with disabilities were almost double the rates for students without disabilities.”
Black students were 80 percent of charter school students, but 93 percent of those suspended and 92 percent of those expelled during 2013-2014. For black boys, the data are even more disturbing. They are 39 percent of the charter students, but 56 percent of the suspended students and 55 percent of the expelled.
For those who think the rates reflect worse behavior by black students and especially black boys — think again. When I wrote last year about racial disparities in the suspension of preschool students — that’s right, preschoolers get suspended — I consulted an Indiana University research review with the title “Are Black Kids Worse?”
Many believe the answer is yes. But the research says no.
“A number of different methods have been used to test the idea that differential punishment is due to different rates of misbehavior,” said the report that Russell J. Skiba and Natasha T. Williams wrote for the university’s Equity Project. “Regardless of the method, such studies have provided little to no evidence that African American students in the same school or district are engaging in more seriously disruptive behavior that could warrant higher rates of exclusion or punishment. …
“There is virtually no support in the research literature for the idea that disparities in school discipline are caused by racial/ethnic differences in behavior,” the report continued. “Studies comparing the severity of behavior by race have found no evidence that students of color in the same schools or districts engage in more severe behavior that would warrant higher rates of suspension or expulsion. … In short, the data are consistent: There is simply no good evidence that racial differences in discipline are due to differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races.”
Despite its differences with the GAO’s report, the board’s letter said, “we agree that discipline rates remain higher than we would like, and that they remain disproportionate with respect to race and disability status.”
But they insist that rather than seeking “large, immediate reductions … the steady progress seen with DC charters is the right way to reduce out-of-school discipline.”
Perhaps, but that’s of little comfort to the students treated unfairly while the “steady progress” chugs along.