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Chicago Charter School Discipline Policies Protested

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By guest blogger Jackie Zubrzycki. Cross-posted from District Dossier.

A group of students and advocates in Chicago are taking their protest against strict disciplinary policies in some charter schools in the city to the state legislature and the State Board of Education.

The protesters appeared before the Illinois state charter commission earlier this week but got little traction with their concerns, said Emma Tai, a coordinator for Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, or VOYCE, which is supporting the protests.

They want more oversight and consistent regulation of charter schools' expulsion and discipline policies from both the state commission and the Chicago Board of Education—especially as those schools are expanding at the same time the school district is closing almost 50 of its noncharter schools.

"Charter schools can't claim to be 'nonselective' and 'higher-performing' public schools while relying on expulsion to systematically choose which students they will educate with taxpayer dollars," says a VOYCE fact sheet.

"With the closures of a lot of public schools, there's concern about the growth of charters without enough accountability," said Jessica Schneider, a staff attorney at the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She represented a student whom she believed had been expelled from a charter school for an offense that would not have resulted in expulsion in a regular public school.

The VOYCE protests zero in on the Noble network of charter schools, which have attracted attention for their practice of fining students for disciplinary actions. Mike Milkie, the network's superintendent, says that the strict policies help inculcate a sense of self-discipline in students, and that they create safer school environments. The Noble Network is set to expand in the city this year.

VOYCE found that the expulsion rate is 7.6 times higher at Noble than in the city's noncharter public schools, while another network, Perspectives Charter Schools, had an expulsion rate that is almost 16 times higher than Chicago Public Schools' traditional public schools.

Overall in Chicago, the expulsion rate in 2011-12 was .54 percent in charter schools, as compared to just .08 percent in traditional public schools.

This may be partly because it is harder to get an impartial expulsion hearing in most charter schools, Schneider said. She said that often, even an appealed decision would go right back to the charter schools' leader. In the traditional public schools, all expulsions are heard by a central office.

Meanwhile, enrollment in the charter sector has been growing as enrollment in the regular schools has declined.

Chicago isn't not the only place where this has been an issue: Many cities have been determining whether and how to deal with high discipline rates in charter schools, which some advocates say mean that the traditional public schools are left with more challenging populations of students. Education Week published a collection of articles about charter discipline earlier this year.

In New Orleans, where the majority of students attend charter schools, concerns about push-outs and expulsions escalated to such a point that the state-run Recovery School District, which oversees many charter schools in the city, decided to create a unified expulsion court for almost all of the city's schools, so that schools could still set their own codes for more minor infractions but have some degree of accountability before actually expelling a student. Some have said that other cities with rapidly growing charter sectors could look to that court in New Orleans as a model.

Meanwhile, some charter schools in Chicago are specifically designed to serve students who have been struggling in school. The 22-school Youth Connections Charter School enrolls approximately 4,000 Chicago students who were at risk of dropping out.

Follow Rules for Engagement on Twitter @Rulz4Engagement and Education Week Staff Writer Nirvi Shah on Twitter @NirviShah.

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