Photo by Bludgeoner86 on Flickr.

561 students in public charter schools, or 1 in 56 charter students, transferred to traditional public schools during the 2011-2012 school year.  That means that, in addition to the 277 students charters expelled during that year, another 284 transferred to DCPS schools.

The Washington Post profiled involuntary transfers, students who were offered the chance to withdraw under threat of expulsion. Expulsions become part of a student’s record, while transfers do not.

Only 44 students transferred from DCPS schools to charter schools in the 2011-2012 school year, according to new data released by the State Superintendent of Education.  DCPS schools expelled only 24 students in that year. 

DCPS teachers have long complained of having to absorb mid-year transfers of disruptive students into their classrooms.  The newly released data appears to validate their claims.

The 561 students transferred from charter to DCPS schools makes up 1 in 80 of the total DCPS enrollment.  That means that each year 1 in 4 DCPS classrooms, on average, absorb a transferred charter school student mid-year.

Because students who were expelled, or involuntarily withdrew, from charter schools are unlikely to apply again, the cumulative affect of transfers over multiple years is notable.  Over 4 years, every DCPS classroom on average would have a student who transferred or was expelled from a charter school at this rate.

Is this a problem?

The discrepancy between the expulsion and involuntary transfer rates of charters and traditional public schools creates several problems.

First, parents rely on test scores when comparing schools.  Transparent, comparable test scores are thus critical to school choice.

However, neighborhood public schools are disproportionately burdened with disruptive students expelled or involuntarily transferred from charter schools.  This casts doubt on the comparability of test scores between charter and non-charter schools.

Second, charters are not given the opportunity and the challenge to innovate ways to reach these students when they can expel and involuntary transfer them at rates far in excess of DCPS schools. 

Charters are supposed to be test beds of innovation, and they must have autonomy in how they teach students in order to innovate. 

However, granting charters autonomy from the students themselves who are disruptive and problematic undermines the very structural incentives to innovate that led to the granting of charters in the first place.

Are there any viable solutions?

Advocates have offered three solutions to the discrepancy between the expulsion and involuntary transfer rates of charters and traditional public schools.  Unfortunately, none of them seem to be politically viable.

Harmonized disciplinary rules: OSSE proposed a harmonized set of expulsion policies last year that would apply to all public schools, both charter and traditional. 

While youth advocates testified in strong support of the move, charter operators and advocates launched a coordinated opposition to the proposal.  They argued that OSSE had no legal authority to dictate disciplinary policies of charter schools.

OSSE has not replied to questions asking for their response to the legal claims of charter operators.

Greater charter accountability: Charter advocates generally called for greater accountability and investigation of “problem” charter schools with particularly high expulsion and transfer rates. 

However, charter advocates contend that no one has the authority to authorize investigations except for the Public Charter School Board.  PCSB has been criticized recently for a lack of charter accountability.

StudentsFirst, the national school reform advocacy launched by former Chancellor Michelle Rhee, last month created report cards for each state including DC.  The DC report card gave the PCSB a 0 out of 4 grade in charter accountability.

Allow DCPS to expel students at same rate as charters: Many advocates, particularly charter parents, have defended charter schools’ expulsion policies.  DCPS should be allowed to expel students at the same rate, they argue, into a school that is specialized to meet their needs.

However, if DCPS schools had the same rate of expulsions and of transfers, the total number of students expelled or involuntary transferred per year would be 1,364.

After 6 years, a school absorbing all of these students would have 8,184 rejected students, or 11% of all public school students.  There appears to be little to no political will to segregate such a large portion of DC schoolchildren into a safety-net school system.

Drifting towards an outcome that no one wants

The fundamental problem with education reform in DC is that we are drifting towards an unattractive outcome with little discussion or debate.

It’s now painfully clear that we are drifting towards a set of parallel, unequal school systems.  First, we have thriving neighborhood schools west of Rock Creek Park and on Capitol Hill.  Second, we have charter schools and magnet schools east of Rock Creek Park. 

Third, and most distressingly, we have neighborhood schools east of Rock Creek Park that are becoming safety net schools.  We can think of them as Medicaid for education.

There’s a common misconception that DC is on the cutting edge of charter development because DC has the highest rate of charter enrollment except for New Orleans.  New York City, Denver, Chicago and other cities have charters.  New York City has more charters than any city.

Where DC lags, as the StudentsFirst report card made clear, is in the development of institutions and policies that align charter schools with the interests of all students across the public school system.  The other cities with charters have a common lottery, neighborhood preference and greater charter accountability

Without these policies aligning charters with the interests of all kids, not just their own, charters possess competitive advantages that have led to overwhelming demand from parents.  It’s this discrepancy with other cities that accounts for the high rate of charter enrollment in DC.

Are there viable solutions to this discrepancy between charter and traditional public schools in DC?  Do you find the outcome towards which DC schools are headed to be acceptable?

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.