Chicago: Charter Schools Suspend and Expel Minority Students at Extremely High Rates

Privatization transfers public funds, assets, and authority from the public sector to the private sector. This typically erodes the voice of workers, increases corruption, lowers accountability, raises costs, fragments services, undermines flexibility, diminishes transparency, reduces efficiency, decreases the quality of services, and intensifies inequality.

By removing socially-produced value from the economy and further concentrating it in the hands of private competing interests, privatization ultimately harms the economy, undermines the national interest, and enriches a handful of people at the expense of the public. The public would benefit vastly more if the wealth produced by workers stayed in the hands of workers and in the public purse. Socially-produced wealth could then be used to serve the common good. For its part, the United Nations reminds us that privatization violates human rights and devalues the public interest.

While practically every sector is being rapidly privatized at home and abroad, privately-operated charter schools are the main expression of privatization in the sphere of education in the U.S. These outsourced privatized schools siphon billions of dollars a year from public schools and seize many public school assets and facilities for next to nothing. In this connection, every week the news is filled with stories about corruption, fraud, and arrests in the crisis-prone charter school sector. Thousands of such stories can be found at the Network for Public Education.

Even though they are called “public schools of choice open to all,” privately-operated charter schools are notorious for routinely cherry-picking students through a variety of mechanisms, including suspending and expelling poor and low-income black and brown students at extremely high rates, including kindergarteners. It is well-documented that privately-operated charter schools intensify segregation and few are truly diverse (see here, here, and here). The charter school sector is more segregated than the public school sector. New York City, for example, is home to some of the most intensely segregated charter schools in the nation (see here and here). It is also worth noting that all charter schools in the U.S. are run by unelected individuals, generally employ fewer experienced teachers than public schools, and regularly perform poorly. In addition, charter schools tend to pay teachers less than their public school counterparts and hire fewer nurses than public schools.

Chicago is home to more than 100 privately-operated charter schools but it is not the only city in America full of charter schools that suspend and expel poor and low-income black and brown students at much higher rates than public schools.  ((It is critical to appreciate (1) that charter schools in Chicago came about by closing dozens of public schools in the city and that (2) the closure of public schools in mainly Black communities has caused harm on many levels (see here).)) For example, Legal Prep Charter Academy, “which is about 99% Black, issued 190 out-of-school suspensions during the 2019-2020 school year. Community organizers and students say the harsh discipline tactics make students less engaged with school and feel unwanted.” This means that Legal Prep Charter Academy, “suspended students at a higher rate than any other school in Chicago.” The school also “issued 13 expulsions during the 2019-2020 school year, meaning almost one out of every 20 students was expelled.” Not surprisingly, Legal Prep Charter Academy is in legal trouble on other fronts as well. In the U.S., “no-excuses” charter schools have come under heavy criticism over the years for their harsh consequences, antisocial policies, and authoritarian practices.

Even during the height of the covid pandemic:

the [Chicago] district’s charters issued an average of 130 suspensions per 1,000 students. (Students can be suspended multiple times). That rate is nearly five times that of non-charter schools in Chicago, according to new analysis of disciplinary data obtained online from the Illinois State Board of Education and Chicago Public Schools. (emphasis added)

According to the same source, expulsions have been going on for years:

Of the schools in Chicago issuing the highest number of expulsions in 2019-2020, eight of the top 10 schools were charter schools, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education. In 2018-2019, all 10 were charters. Legal Prep was on both of those lists.

To be sure, charter school suspensions and expulsions is a long-standing national problem. Charter schools do not accept or retain all students. Many students pushed out of charter schools return to their home public school. ((It is important to appreciate that charter schools choose parents and students, not the other way around.)) Chalkbeat noted in 2015 that New York City charter schools also suspended students at a much higher rate than the city’s public schools. On a national scale, a 2016 study by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that charter schools suspended a range of students at higher rates than public schools. The report, which examined more than 5,000 charter schools across the country, also stressed the intensely segregated nature of charter schools. It is well-known that students who are suspended and expelled at high rates are more likely to become part of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Unlike privately-operated charter schools, public schools accept all students at all times and have far fewer suspensions and expulsions; they are not as heavy-handed as charter schools. Charter schools are deregulated schools, which means that they are exempt from many public standards, laws, and rules. Deregulation is a key feature of the privatization agenda of neoliberals. This “autonomy” and “freedom” allows charter schools to engage in punitive practices in the name of “innovation” and “high expectations.” In practice, privatization incentivizes both nonprofit and for-profit charter schools to cherry-pick students, cut corners, and underinvest. Privatization does the same in other sectors as well, resulting in a lowering of the level of society and the economy.

Despite efforts to reduce extremely high suspension and expulsion rates, charter schools in Chicago and elsewhere are not known for vigorously embracing sustained pro-social improvements, let alone on a broad and rapid scale. They cannot do so because they operate mainly as profit-maximizing private enterprises, regardless of whether they are classified as nonprofit or for-profit schools. Profit maximization and human social responsibilities like education do not go together; they negate each other. The notion that the broad aim of the public can be reconciled and harmonized with the narrow aim of owners of capital is straightforward disinformation; they are contradictory aims.

Many have publicly stated that cashing in on kids is immoral and self-serving. In theory and practice, justice cannot be upheld or restored in entities set up to operate on the basis of individualism, consumerism, competition, the “free market,” and exclusionary practices. Privatization is designed for profit, not equity or justice. Privatization fosters exclusion and a hierarchy of rights, not the opposite. In legal, philosophical, operational, and other ways, charter schools are set up very differently from public schools. It is problematic to even compare them or to call charter schools public schools. Charter schools and public schools are apples and oranges.

A modern public education system in a society based on mass industrial production can and must be world-class, fully-funded, inclusive, universal, non-punitive, publicly controlled, and never allowed to fall into the hands of private interests. Owners of capital have no legitimate claim to public funds, assets, or enterprises because these all belong to the public and are meant to serve the common good, not the narrow aim of profit maximization.

There are roughly 100,000 public schools and approximately 7,500 privately-operated charter schools in the United States. Around 3.4 million students attend charter schools and about 50 million youth—90% of students—attend public schools. Roughly 150-250 charter schools close every year due to financial malfeasance, mismanagement, or poor academic performance, leaving many poor and low-income minority families out in the cold. Despite the oft-repeated promise of better results for students and schools, about 5,000 charter schools have closed in the U.S. over the course of nearly 31 years.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at Read other articles by Shawgi.