Duncan’s Challenge to Charters

A few weeks ago, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan challenged charters at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools annual conference to stop pushing students out of their schools and to start serving the most vulnerable students, including those that are over-age and undercredited and those in the juvenile justice system. After congratulating high performing charter schools on closing the achievement gap, he cut to the chase:

The bottom line is that the charter school brand has to stand for quality, accountability, cost-efficiency, and transparency. As far as the public is concerned, charter schools all have the same last name.
So to fully deliver on the dream, charters schools must do more to take innovation to scale and continue to tackle the very toughest educational challenges.
I want to see charters pioneering solutions that do a better job of educating students with disabilities, overage students, students in the correctional system, and English language learners.
And I want to see charters leading the way in reducing their own rates of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and controllable attrition.
In many cities, including right here in Washington, charters are substantially more likely to suspend and expel students than other public schools.
In the 2011-12 school year, a total of 230 students were expelled from school in the District. Charters expelled 227 of those 230 students, or 99 percent.
Just 11 charter schools—and that list included some high-performing charters—accounted for 75 percent of those expulsions citywide. That’s not acceptable.
In so many respects, DC charters are doing outstanding work. I’ve been in many of those schools and seen the difference that they are making. And the D.C. Public Charter School Board should be applauded for the transparency in reporting that enabled these statistics to come to light. But at the end of the day, high rates of exclusionary discipline cannot be good for children.
I want charters to show the way in implementing alternative discipline methods that keep students in school and engaged in learning to the maximum extent possible—while still holding students accountable for their actions and protecting the integrity of the learning environment. I know that is easier said than done, but these tough challenges are what real leadership is all about.
Thankfully, the charter sector now has incredible opportunities to innovate and take educational solutions to scale over the next 20 years. As President Obama has said, charter schools can be “incubators of innovation.”

If Secretary Duncan is serious about this challenge to charters then he needs to get equally serious about getting accountability right. We definitely want to have incentives for districts and schools to get students to graduation. And we want them to have incentives to keep serving students even those that have fallen off-track and disengaged from school, even if it takes more than 4 years. 

photo courtesy: Department of Education, www2.ed.gov