School Choice

School Discipline Is a Big Issue, But That NYT Headline Is Not Helping Anyone

Perhaps it was written to be clickbait, but the New York Times put a pot-stirring headline on a story that has quickly reignited a tiresome and seemingly unproductive debate around charter schools and discipline. And while anyone would be concerned, even appalled, by the headline itself, it misleads readers about the content of the piece. Here’s the headline:

Charter Schools Suspend Black and Disabled Students More, Study Says

Motoko Rich, the writer of the piece in question, explicitly (and rightly) states in the second paragraph that similar inequities exist in traditional public schools. Here are her exact words:
These inequities are similar to those in traditional public schools, where black and disabled students are disproportionately disciplined for even minor infractions, and as early as preschool—although on average, charter schools suspend pupils at slightly higher rates than traditional public schools.
But someone made the editorial decision to exploit the power of a headline to perpetuate a narrative about charter schools that distracts from a very real and national problem of higher suspension and expulsion rates for students of color and students with disabilities. As Rich’s piece clearly lays out, these higher rates of suspension are a problem for traditional public schools and charter public schools; but since the piece went up, my Twitter feed has been abuzz with teachers unions and anti-charter groups falling over themselves to perpetuate the myth that charters suspend at far higher rates than traditional district schools. Truth be told, it doesn’t even seem like those rushing to share the story have actually read the piece. Because if they had read the piece, they’d realize that the data used in the report is from 2011-2012. And this is a problem because the issue of suspension rates has been a priority for some of our major cities and charter networks during the years between then and now. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools published a response to the Times piece that included concrete and current data on suspensions and expulsions in both New Orleans and Washington, D.C.—two cities with robust charter school sectors.
  • In New Orleans, despite serving a much more at-risk student population, New Orleans’ expulsion rate is lower than the state average (0.6 percent for New Orleans and 0.7 percent for Louisiana). The transition to an all charter school system, coupled with equity-driven leadership, has resulted in more students staying in school.
  • The expulsion rate for D.C. public charter schools has been cut by two-thirds since 2011, and the rate of out-of-school suspensions has decreased by about 20 percent.
No one can deny that inequities exist around suspensions and expulsions across school sectors nationwide. It is a concern that many of us, on both sides of the most divisive issues in education, actually share. There is common ground here. So while anti-charter groups, union groups, and other high profile news outlets like Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Times swarm over this unfortunate headline, the substance around solving the problem is lost amidst the noise. By oversimplifying and ignoring nuance, the conversation becomes about squabbling adults instead of the students impacted by what’s happening every day in their schools. Ginning people up over a narrative based on misinformation and false dichotomies inevitably leads to more clicks and shares but if we are are really about the best interest of kids, we should be working to support all schools of any and every kind to find better and more effective ways to manage student discipline. And in this case, that just didn’t happen.
Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting ...

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