On Charter School Discipline: Autonomy, Due Process, and Shared Responsibility

Yesterday, the SUNY Charter Schools Institute hosted a seminar for authorizers and charter school leaders on the laws governing school discipline. In New York, as in most states, charter schools have broad discretion to implement the discipline policy that was approved as part of their charter application. In some states, charter schools are subject to the same state laws governing discipline in district-operated public schools, while in others they are exempt from the law but must still implement their approved policy. And every charter school, in every state and just like every other public school, must provide due process as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and granted to public school students by the Supreme Court in 1975 in Goss v. Lopez.

EdweekParticipants debated how to balance the autonomy that allows so many charter schools to defy all odds with the need for fairness to all students and a level-playing field for all schools. We also discussed burgeoning initiatives in a variety of cities around the country aimed at preserving school-level autonomy over in-school discipline practices while at the same time promoting fairness through transparency and in at least one case, the establishment of a common set of expel-able offenses that all schools agree to follow and a common process for hearing expulsion cases. We also discussed strategies for ensuring that schools can maintain a strong culture and demand high expectations for achievement and behavior while still protecting the rights of all students and living up to the responsibilities of all public schools. The afternoon focused on the unique issues that arise when addressing the behavior of students with special needs.

The seminar was timely as discipline in public schools and in charter schools in particular is attracting increased public scrutiny. Initiatives like the one in New Orleans and the transparency work being done in Connecticut  and by the D.C. Public Charter School Board in Washington, DC, are likely to spread to other cities that are welcoming charter schools into their communities, not as exclusionary enclaves or pressure valves for a fortunate few, but as full partners with equal public resources and equal public responsibilities.

As Education Week’s excellent, recent series on charter school discipline showed, concerns about charter school discipline are often about ideology and politics than facts and reality. But the autonomy that charter schools have–and that all schools need to succeed–does raise real challenges when it comes to ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity to thrive in a school of their choice. We would do well to face these challenges head on.