Greg Roach's Berkshires Blog
Monday, November 17, 2008
  What Are the Public Obligations of a Charter School?
I've got to be careful what I write here because I don't want to breach any confidences, but what exactly are the obligations of a charter school to the general population of students that it claims to serve? Can a charter school in Massachusetts pick and choose its students rather than be open to the general population? Can a charter school "wash-out" those students who it finds undesirable or difficult to educate?

Is it ethical for a school that bills itself as a "public school" to suspend and expel students who violate homework policy? Is it ethical for a school that is funded by tax dollars to declare that it is a "college prep" school and toss kids with behavioral and emotional issues "under the bus?"

You might have guessed that I have reasons for asking these questions, and, no, they have nothing to do with my own child (or the poor little schmuck who is in that priceless photo. Heh!) However, as a taxpayer and as a parent in general, there are stories floating around out there about kids who need help rather than the back of the hand that bother the crap out of me.

Are the scenarios I painted above legal? Ethical? Do I fail to grasp the requirements of public education? Do charter schools have a completely different obligation to their students, parents and community than the neighborhood public school?

I like the concept of charter schools (I hate the punitive local funding mechanism), but if Massachusetts law allows charter schools to act like the exclusive private schools and kick kids to the curb for relatively minor issues that your typical public school has to deal with, I think that my endorsement has been misplaced.

UPDATE: Ok, after several days and a few insightful comments I will acknowledge that the language of the above post is far too inflammatory. My intention was to ask blunt questions rather than make subversive accusations. Unfortunately, with a more sober re-reading, my off-the-cuff commentary appears to do both, which diminishes its efficacy. I regret using phrases such as "kicked to the curb" and "under the bus." They create a tone in this post that make it combative rather than intellectually provocative and have understandably ticked-off some readers instead of spurring reasoned discussion.
We have a system of compulsory education, which is compulsory for teachers as well as students. There's an enormous public interest in having a literate and educated population, and sometimes that will mean teaching unwilling students. It's a lousy situation from both sides, but I think it's necessary.

Public schools, charter or not, should not be allowed to expel a student for academic reasons.

More generally, issues of behavior and motivation are mainly the responsibility of families and the community... but that doesn't let the schools off the hook when we fail.

I really don't know the answers to most of your questions, either in terms of statutory requirements, or in terms of what's best for some or all of the students.

May I ask you a question? Is it OK with you that an exam school such as Boston Latin exists, with all that means about academic elitism? (I'd be very surprised if any charter school in the state is as hard to get into as BL.) Why (not)?

I don't know if the weakest students suffer from being educated separately from the strongest students, but I do know that even within small school systems, tracking of students means that by high school they are in fact so educated, in separate classes for most subjects apart from gym.

So we have students separated based on academic strength both within schools and within large urban districts. Even if that's a bad thing, is there really something worse about doing it within an exurban effectively regional system like choice within the Berkshires?
Hard to discuss this without knowing the specifics about which "minor issues" are getting the kids "kicked to the curb." But speaking generally:

It doesn't necessarily feel wrong to me to say "here are the expectations we have of our students. Anyone is welcome, and we will offer this education free of charge so there are no barriers to participation. We will not select only the top students - we will open our doors to everyone. But to stay here, you must be willing to do your part."

Even when there is such a code of behavior that students are expected to meet, it is still a free education. There is no five-figure barrier to entry. It is open to any and every student who is willing to do his/her part.

So what do you do with those students who don't do their part? What if they are interfering with other students' ability to learn?

Eric said "There's an enormous public interest in having a literate and educated population," and I'm totally with him on that. Ultimately, as a taxpayer, I want as many kids as possible prepared for college, for making a positive contribution to this complex world. As a taxpayer, I want every kid who wants to learn, who tries to learn, to have that opportunity. Is the long-term education of a nation, or a state, or a region, better served by removing the few students who are disruptive to the many? Or by saying "you're all lumped in together, no matter what?"

There's an "alternative high school" that's been piloted on the BCC campus; it seems to be having great impact on its (admittedly tiny) population of highly at-risk students. If there were more such alternatives for these students, discussions like these would be less loaded, and asking kids to adhere to standards wouldn't necessarily be equated to throwing kids under the bus.

I'm ramble on and on, but (thankfully for you) now I must go scold the dog who is eating a dirty diaper. Damn dog.

The main differences I see between a Boston Latin or Stuyvesant and a charter school is 1) the admissions are competitive within the system, but once a student is "in," he does not wash out simply for not doing his homework. 2) The exclusive magnet schools are part of larger public system, while a charter school is a system unto itself. The larger systems obviously have mechanisms and systems to deal with students with academic issues.

Ali- I don't disagree with that concept if the behavior is truly disruptive, but in my opinion a student simply sitting silent in class while the other students discuss the homework does not rise to the level of suspension and expulsion in a taxpayer funded school. A failing grade for lack of effort is a far more appropriate reaction. This is another example of "zero-tolerance" run amok.

Herein lies the rub of charter schools. They seem to want to try and slant the playing field versus traditional public schools but they want the same public funding per student. I have to admit that I have a real problem with that.
My quick, and very limited two cents...

If a school is funded by tax dollars, then they are legally responsible for providing an education for that child. Unless the child is doing something truly disruptive (and isn't a sped situation), I don't believe a school can dismiss a student for simply not doing homework or participating in class.

However, I absolutely believe they can fail that child (ok, in more ways than one but that's another story) in terms of in giving him all 'F's.

I'm more curious as to why a school would try to release a student simply for not doing homework. Is it because he would somehow reflect negatively on the school with regard to MCAS or some other no-child left behind statistical data?

As with all things, I'm sure there is more to this story than is being presented...probably on both sides.
I have never heard of a student being expelled from a charter school because of homework.
I have, however, heard of students being given detentions for not completing homework assignments.
I have also heard of charter schools that offer free after-school homework help and a scheduled block of time in the middle of each school day during which every student receives teacher-supported study so that he will not have to leave with so much homework that there is no way it could be finished by the following day.
Finally, I have also heard of charter schools who are not only trying to help students succeed, but are also trying to raise the parents' expectations of that child so that homework may start to seem like a means to an end & not a nightly battle that some parents are avoiding.
And now that I think about it, I very often hear of public schools steering parents of difficult or low achieving students towards charter schools.
Basically, kicking them to the curb.
Anon- I understand, but do repeated detentions for homework eventually translate into suspension and then into expulsion? ( believe the term used "chronic school offender.")

I never said charter schools don't care and don't work hard to serve kids. But this is why I am asking the questions.

When can a taxpayer funded school wash its hands of kid because he refuses to perform?

The public schools certainly can suggest another setting for a student, but if they direct the child and the parent to a charter, and the charter doesn't work for them, you can be assured that the kid will be back in the public school. Whereas the child will never be welcome back into the charter.

The system(s) suck. I acknowledge that. But the weird parallel universe that charters live in puzzles me more and more every time I look at them.
I think you need to re-consider your original source.

As I said before, I do not know of a charter school that expels students for not doing their homework, so that can not be a part of this picture.

Also, at a charter school homework detentions simply do not translate into suspensions that,in turn, translate into expulsions. And that means that a taxpayer supported charter school would not wash it's hands of a student because they do not do their homework.

A final correction is that such students who have left & later decided to return to a charter school have, in fact, been able to do so - the pattern being that they would not be coming back if they were not ready to work.
(I would hope that any public school (charter or not) would welcome back a student who is finally ready to work.)

Maybe something to keep in mind is that charter schools must meet the same state standards as other public schools & if they do not their charter will not be renewed and the school will be closed. The difference is the way they teach it & what they are going to consider equally important as its core classes.
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