Michael Q. McShane

Last week, I offered a “Mythbusters”-style blog on the (mistaken) belief that charter schools suspend students at higher rates than traditional public schools do.

I wanted to follow up on that post with a quick addendum on a related issue that charter critics often raise in discussions about the discipline practices of charter schools. They often claim that the draconian discipline systems within charter schools are used to push out students who are lower performing or are too disruptive to handle. Like the myth of charter school suspensions, this one isn’t true either.

Now it is true that, on average, there are differences between charter schools and traditional public schools in terms of the types of students that they enroll. But careful research has yet to find evidence that charter schools actively push out low-performing students at rates higher than those of traditional public schools. Ron Zimmer of Vanderbilt and Cassandra Guarino at Indiana University, for example, analyzed data from an anonymous large urban school and found no evidence of pushing out low-achieving students. Marcus Winters similarly found no evidence that charter schools in New York disproportionately pushed out low-achieving students. It does appear that in Chicago, charter schools expel students at a higher rate than traditional public schools do, but in the nearly all-charter district in New Orleans the expulsion rate is lower than in the rest of the state, even though the students in New Orleans are more disadvantaged. These seemingly contradictory results are why we should value research with the appropriate statistical controls.

There is also little evidence that charter schools “skim” the best students from the public school system. In fact, a team of researchers also led by Ron Zimmer found no evidence in the seven locations they examined.

At best, proponents of these theories offer isolated anecdotes or decry the actions of a particular school or school network without asking if that school or network is representative of the system as a whole.

All of this research aside, I think there is an important conversation to be had about the value of discipline in and of itself. I would argue that we have to be open to the idea that that suspending more students actually makes for a better learning environment. We know that disruptive students have a huge (and I mean huge) negative effect on their peers. In some cases, suspending students might the only way around that. I hope that isn’t the case—but it very well could be. The autonomy of charter schools gives them the latitude to experiment with different discipline practices. Hopefully we can learn from their efforts and continue to improve student discipline practices.

About the Author

Michael McShane
Senior Fellow of Education Policy

Mike McShane is Senior Fellow of Education Policy for the Show-Me Institute. He is a former high school teacher and earned his PhD in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Before coming to the Show-Me Institute, Mike worked at the American Enterprise Institute as a research fellow.