Punishing Students For Not Making Eye Contact? How Charter Schools' Prejudiced Policies Undermine Equality

This article is the first of a two-part series examining who is being left behind in the wake of charter school proliferation and the complicated web of profiteering that is driving the movement. Part I details many of the ways in which charter schools fail poor children, children of color and students with disabilities even as charter school supporters appropriate civil rights rhetoric. Part II will focus on the big business of charter schools.

On the heels of news that Philadelphia will be closing 23 schools for the 2013-2014 academic year, Chicago has made an even more startling announcement: Chicago Public Schools has proposed closing 54 schools for the next academic year. The idea is to replace them with charter schools, an initiative that Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has supported enthusiastically.

Enthusiasm for charter schools primarily comes from them being hailed as a panacea that could solve longstanding disparities in education quality, and possibly even turn around longstanding divides like racial disparity and economic inequality.

Without irony, the charter school movement has adopted the banner of the civil rights movement to create an aura of moral authority. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised pro-charter propaganda film Waiting for Superman for ushering in a “Rosa Parks moment.” And a Goldman Sachs banker famously called charter schools the “civil rights struggle of my generation.”

Ultimately, however, not only do charter schools fail children of color and students with disabilities, they often actively work against them as they try to transform students into what they imagine is the status quo. From outrageous fees to strict disciplinary codes, charter schools continuously work to target students they don't want.

Charter Schools Not a Clear Success Story

There is little evidence that charter schools are the silver bullet touted by supporters, let alone a beacon of racial empowerment. Though charter school research is new and fairly underdeveloped, the one large-scale study to date, a 2009 project conducted by Stanford’s conservative, pro-charter Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that a majority of charters do not outperform public schools, with more than a third actually doing worse.

Another study came out just last week helmed by the nonprofit Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, which works to address the ways social and economic inequality can affect education and academic performance. It studied the effects of school closure and charter school proliferation on three cities: Chicago, Washington DC and New York. It found that the triumphalism of the charter movement was entirely unfounded, and that the quality of education for the most vulnerable children became worse in the wake of closings and charter school growth.

How Charters Discriminate Against Disable Students

Beyond test scores as measures of achievement, there are other ways in which charter schools may be undermining equality of opportunity. Because they are, technically speaking, public entities that receive federal funding, charter schools are bound by all federal civil rights legislation prohibiting schools to discriminate on the basis of disability, race and/or socioeconomic status. State and local bodies that govern charters are tasked with guarding against discrimination.

But the truth is that charter schools may be discriminating. A June 2012 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that during the 2009-2010 academic year, about 11 percent of traditional public school students were identified as disabled. In charter schools, that number dropped to 8 percent. Plus, the study noted, “[The] proportion of charter schools that enrolled high percentages of students with disabilities was lower overall. Specifically, students with disabilities represented 8 to 12 percent of all students at 23 percent of charter schools compared to 34 percent of traditional public schools.”

The 2012 study suggests that there is not yet enough information to determine that this is happening because charter schools discriminate in a systematic way. Still, it details multiple anecdotal accounts that suggest a more systematic rooting out in the admissions process.  For example, it names P.B., et al v. Pastorek, a complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other advocacy organizations in 2010. According to the SPLC, “Students with disabilities were denied access to New Orleans public schools and often pushed into schools unable to provide them with the educational services they deserved under federal law.” The complaint cited “violations in more than 30 New Orleans schools -- including charter schools and schools operated by the state’s [post-Katrina] Recovery School District.”

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which is also helping with the case, notes that, “[An] estimated 4,500 students with disabilities are denied equal access to educational opportunities, routinely pushed out of school, and subject to discrimination on the basis of their disabilities” every year. Since the Recovery School District began governing New Orleans education policy after Katrina, the Committee alleges, the city has failed to provide equal educational opportunities to disabled students, neglected the mandated “child find” policy to identify and serve disabled students, denied disabled students “a free appropriate education” and “unlawfully disciplined and excluded [disabled students] from educational programs.”

The changes since the crossover from traditional public schools were swift, but the complaint has been pending in federal court for more than two years now.

Though the GAO study encourages more systematic research, it does identify some causal factors that may be leading to discrimination. One is the reliance of charter schools on fundraising from private institutions. Charter school administrators told the GAO they simply did not have sufficient resources to provide the mandated disability services, particularly when it came to meeting the individual needs of students. Schools also noted that they were ill-equipped to serve students with the most severe cognitive disabilities.

The report concluded that, “[S]ome charter schools may be discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling and denying admission to students with more severe disabilities because services are too costly.” This is their excuse, but it bears repeating that this hasn’t been researched or verified. Further, charter schools have much more autonomy when it comes to the distribution of funds than other public schools. It’s not clear whether lack of funding is the real cause for discrimination—or simply unwillingness to enroll students with learning disabilities who may reduce a school’s average test scores.

How Charters Discriminate Based on Race and Class

In addition to complaints of disability discrimination, there is evidence that charter schools are doing a poor job of achieving racial equality or helping poor students. The new study by Broader, Bolder Approach to Education found that districts in the three cities that aggressively closed schools and opened charter schools to replace them increased race- and class-based achievement gaps, even as pro-charter reformers continued to cast themselves as contemporary civil rights activists.

This is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), where African-American students comprise 41.6 percent of the student population, followed by Latino students at 44.1 percent and white students at 8.8 percent. CPS students are also overwhelmingly poor. Eighty-four percent of the district’s students – that’s 338,000 children – qualify for free and reduced lunch, so it’s difficult to untangle class and race here. The bottom line is that the system is not succeeding by any civil rights-era ideals.

Gary Moriello, who retired from CPS in 2007, worked as an educator for 37 years, first as a teacher and then as an elementary school principal. He tells AlterNet, “Charter schools tend to siphon off the children they want from traditional public schools.” And it’s clear who they don’t want, he says: “Special-education students, English-as-a-second-language students, students with various behavioral issues. It makes their jobs easier.”

CTU researcher Sarah Hainds says Chicago charter schools have built-in disciplinary systems that facilitate discrimination against poor children. Charter schools in Chicago follow strict codes of conduct similar to military school styles of discipline. Hainds says this is a frequently cited draw for many parents who are nervous about gang fights and shootings in their neighborhood schools. 

In Chicago charter schools, strict disciplinary codes are one way charter schools can target and remove students they don’t want. In 2012, three public education advocacy organizations, Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) and the Advancement Project, teamed up to research and report on the effects of the demerits system. One of the most egregious groups, a charter authorization organization called Noble, earned $200,000 a year in net profits simply from enforcing its severe discipline code, in which each minor infraction costs $5.

Noble requires that children sit up straight and maintain eye contact with the teacher when addressed. Briefly averting eyes? That’s a demerit. Students can earn demerits for speaking faltering English or speaking in black or Southern dialect, as they are required to “articulate in standard English” at all times. New English learners are not exempt from this policy. The study found that families were being charged for “any infraction on a list of prohibited conduct…that pretty much describes the full gamut of teenage behavior including such minor issues as having a shirt button unbuttoned or being seen with a bag of chips or sharpie.” Twelve demerits means children must take a discipline class that costs an extra $140. At more than 12 infractions? That’s two discipline courses at $280. Noble’s schools “will not waive these fees, even for low-income families, and about 90 percent of Noble students are low-income.”

Hainds says, “Some children’s families can’t afford to pay for the demerits, and they get kicked out of the charter schools. When fees reach $280 or so, that’s just too much for many families.” Rules are so strict that it’s nearly impossible to avoid demerits, and the demerit system has become a way of rooting out the poorest students.

Plus, the rigid disciplinary system gives new meaning to the phrase, “school-to-prison pipeline.” Chicago Public School parent Mikki Kendall, whose eighth-grade son currently attends a Hyde Park school marked for closure, tells AlterNet she would sooner homeschool than send her child to a charter school. She notes that the extreme military-style discipline fosters a system in which “children are treated like criminals.” Indeed, the dangers of what Kendall aptly calls the “militarization of the ‘hood,” including the policing of inner city schools,are well-documented as bad for children. Yet the harsh discipline goes unchecked.

Some of the marginalization may even happen by default. Both Hainds and Kendall point out that children who attend the charters already have some advantages over many of their peers. Hainds explains:

They are kids whose parents went online, filled out the application, completed all the steps of the application process and made all the formal agreements to enroll their children. A child with a single mother who works multiple jobs to care for multiple children—that is not the child walking in the door of a charter school.

And even though decades of U.S. educational history have borne out the truism that separate cannot be equal, Department of Education data shows that charter schools have some of the most race- and class-based segregation in the country.

Charter Schools Take Schools from Parents and Children

In addition to the ways in which charter schools fail vulnerable children who enroll or try to enroll in them, their very existence almost always comes at a cost to existing traditional schools and the students who attend them. School closings are one manifestation of this cost that policymakers rarely discuss. Hainds tells AlterNet that Chicago’s community schools have deep roots in the often tight-knit communities they serve: "At school closing hearings, people constantly say that it’s as if CPS is erasing their history. There are schools where three generations of family members have attended. There’s a ton of pride, even if a school has low test scores and discipline issues, it’s still the center of their community. CPS has closed schools that are named after important African Americans—again, it’s like CPS is erasing history."

Then there is the psychological impact of being uprooted. Hainds notes that students “feel that CPS has given up on them—that instead of helping their schools, CPS just shuffles them somewhere else.” While CPS is promising to do better for next year, it misplaced and failed to assign at least 250 students to new schools last year. Hainds adds, “CPS even acknowledges that it can’t force parents to send their kids to the designated schools, which actually means that it does not know where all 30,000 kids will enroll next year.” She notes that this upheaval has historically caused a decline in academic performance.

Safety is also an important issue. Kendall explains that many students attend her son’s Hyde Park school because their own neighborhoods are unsafe. Many schools that will serve as alternatives are located in less safe neighborhoods. Neighborhood children, meanwhile, may be asked to walk an additional eight blocks to school through or to areas that put them at greater risk. Hainds shares these concerns, noting that many schools are located in areas with heavy gang area, and “surrounded by foreclosed homes, busy streets [and] viaducts.” She says security will be heightened, but says this is no solution because it only “criminalizes the children.”

On top of everything else, closing and charter proliferation can disempower parents. First, Hainds notes, longer walking distances may prevent many parents from being more involved in their children’s education simply because they have neither a car nor a bus route that goes the distance.

Kendall notes that parents are finding it very difficult to access reliable information about the school closings. Sometimes they are told that registration is too low, sometimes that their schools are under-performing. Privatization via charter schools means that schools are less accountable to the public, including parents. She points out that parents have little recourse to combat disciplinary overreach, which further marginalizes parents.

Ultimately, Kendall fears, school closings, displacement and charter proliferation are creating a “lost generation of kids.” She says, “I can get my kids through with homeschooling if I have to,” but asks, “What happens to kids who don’t have parents with the education or resources to do this?” For people who appropriate civil rights rhetoric with such abandon, corporate school reformers in Chicago appear almost shockingly unconcerned with this question.

Helen Gym, a parent, activist and former teacher—now with Parents United for Public Education and online education resource the Notebook—tells AlterNet:

I see schools as an intrinsic part of communities, particularly marginalized communities, where people are fighting to make voices heard. We have to realize this is not about education. It’s about recognizing that our public schools are the largest, most stable, and most passionate defenders of equity, access, and aspirational hope in this country. In every other sector of this nation, those things are under attack. This is about the evolution of our country, and it is inextricably linked to issues of race, class politics, equity and justice—all longtime, core struggles for people. If we understand that, it makes the path forward a little clearer…There has been incredible pushback in Philadelphia. No matter what happens, the record will show that there were many people who united and stood against the closings. It’s not just about how politicians vote — it’s about who we are as communities and a society, and who showed up when we needed to fight.

So if evidence increasingly mounts showing that school closings and charter proliferation, the question becomes, “Why do we keep closing schools and building new charters in the first place?” The short answer: Profit.

It’s clear that parent advocates like Kendall and Gym, public intellectuals like Ravitch and many more will continue fighting to stop the march toward endless school closure and mass charter school proliferation. But the grassroots movements fighting these trends are in for quite the battle, especially when it comes to wealth and government influence — things their opponents have in abundance.


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