The District’s public charter schools have expelled students at a far higher rate than the city’s traditional public schools in recent years, according to school data, highlighting a key difference between two sectors that compete for the District’s students and taxpayer dollars.
D.C. charter schools expelled 676 students in the past three years, while the city’s traditional public schools expelled 24, according to a Washington Post review of school data. During the 2011-12 school year, when charters enrolled 41 percent of the city’s students, they removed 227 children for discipline violations and had an expulsion rate of 72 per 10,000 students; the District school system removed three and had an expulsion rate of less than 1 per 10,000 students.
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.
City officials are now reviewing the proposed rules and may revise them.
The school system adopted a discipline code in 2009 that allows for expulsion only when a student brings a gun or drugs to school, commits arson, attacks a fellow student or staff member, or does something similarly egregious and illegal.
Leaders of charter schools with high expulsion rates argue that they remove students only when necessary, to keep their buildings safe and their classrooms conducive to learning.
Some charter schools have policies that differ little from the school system’s; others have “zero tolerance” policies that allow expulsion for nonviolent offenses, such as skipping class, or for repeated minor infractions, such as violating dress codes.
The discipline debate is part of a larger discussion about the rise of charter schools in Washington and across the country.
Charter advocates see a movement that — without the rules and red tape that bog down traditional schools — has attracted parents in droves and lifted achievement in some of the most stubbornly poor and disadvantaged corners of America.
“These high-performing charter schools . . . are going to dramatically increase the number of minority students on our elite college campuses and in higher education as a whole,” said Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a pro-charter think tank in Washington. “We should not have a policy that says that schools’ hands are tied if they have kids who are disrupting the learning environment, that there’s nothing they can do about it.”