Are Disruption-Free Schools Only for the Rich?

As a young child, Adrian was quick to anger and acted out in class frequently, sometimes physically. In fourth grade his school classified him as having emotional problems and assigned him a personal aide. After a few years, the aide was phased out; his behavior improved, but the disciplinary consequences got worse. “If he lost his temper, he was generally suspended,” recalls his mother, who asked not to be identified. “I had meetings upon meetings with the vice principals, but they would say, ‘This is what we do; we have no money for things like detention or supervision for in-school suspension.’”

The barrage of disciplinary actions against Adrian (not his real name) began to feel like harassment. “Countless suspensions for countless issues,” his mother recalls. Before one six-month suspension, a lawyer told her the school was “essentially a dictatorship” and that she had no real recourse. Frustrated and increasingly embittered, the family withdrew their son, moved away and enrolled him in a public school where minor misbehaviors were punished by detentions, not suspensions. “The school got rid of him by excessive penalties and suspensions,” she concludes.

If you follow education news you may nod knowingly, assuming this is yet another tale out of Eva Moskowitz’s network of Success Academy charter schools, which have been roiled in recent weeks by exposes in The New York Times and PBS’s NewsHour. Those stories cast a harsh light on the network’s disciplinary practices – including allegations that one school had a “Got to Go” list of difficult students for the purpose of counseling them out. But “Adrian” was not a student at Success or another “no excuses” charter school. He attended a regular district-run public school in Irvington, New York, a wealthy Westchester suburb where the median household income is nearly $100,000 and home prices routinely exceed $1 million.

Not far away, in another affluent, suburban school district in Montclair, New Jersey, minutes from an August meeting show the board of education approved spending nearly $5 million this year for tuition payments – an average of $63,000 per student – on “out-of-district placements” for 79 students with a variety of classifications, including learning disabilities and “other health impairment.” To be sure, there are often good reasons to place children out of district at public expense – no district can serve all students equally well – but neither are there always clear and obvious distinctions to be made between who can be educated in a regular school, those who need alternative settings and those like Adrian who run afoul of the rules so frequently, or who are penalized so often and systematically, that they simply give up and leave.

Much is left to the discretion of school administrators who face no small amount of pressure from other children’s parents to minimize disruption and maximize student achievement. This would seem to be a simple matter of common sense in affluent communities, but it represents a form of privilege, it seems, in schools serving low-income, urban children.

“Success Academy works for some kids, but not for all kids,” wrote education historian Diane Ravitch, a fierce and frequent Moskowitz critic. “Public schools are supposed to work for all kids. Granted, there are magnet schools and special schools, but there are supposed to be public schools where no one is turned away, no one is counseled out.”

Perhaps there are public schools where no one is turned away. But one thing is certain: If you are the bright son or daughter of affluent parents, chronic classroom disruption is largely foreign to your school experience. If you encounter it all, you can be reasonably confident it won’t last long. You almost never share a classroom with challenging, high-needs kids. Wealthy families have any number of ways to insulate themselves from anything interfering with their child’s education. There are private schools and public school administrators willing to marginalize and punish kids who act out – even for infractions that are beneath notice at chaotic inner-city schools. Affluent public schools hire tutors for those they suspend or simply pay tuition – somewhere else – for students they “lack the resources to adequately serve.” And many districts do maintain the “magnet schools and special schools” Ravitch referenced at least in part to accommodate such youngsters outside of “regular” public schools.

Then, of course, there is the most common tactic for sorting out the hardest to teach: the iron reality of the real estate market, which prohibits low-income families, statistically the lowest achieving, from any hope of moving to affluent neighborhoods with “high performing” public schools. It’s no secret that “regular” schools serving predominantly poor children, who face overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, have more than their share of behavior problems. It’s what drives many urban parents to charter schools in the first place.

That brings us back to Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy. There may be no more divisive figure in American education. To her detractors (and they are legion), The New York Times expose was the “smoking gun.” To them it “proved” that she achieves her eye-popping results by systematically shedding the hardest to teach – low-achieving children with behavior problems, English language learners and kids with disabilities. For her part, Moskowitz vehemently denies having a policy of pushing out difficult students and points to suspension rates in her schools that are lower than comparable New York City schools.

My object is not to condemn or praise Eva Moskowitz. But let’s suppose for a moment that the charges are true, that she achieves her extraordinary test scores by “counseling out” the kids least likely to produce such scores. As a thought exercise, consider this awkward bit of calculus: If counseling out some number of unruly, disruptive or hard to teach low-income students enables a school – any school – to bring 25, 50 or even 100 times that number of other students to levels of achievement that “regular” schools have historically proven unable to equal, are you OK with that?

If your answer is “no,” then ask yourself if you’re OK with it in places like Montclair and Irvington, Greenwich or Bethesda. How do you feel about the fact that schools full of rich kids can and do make other arrangements for the hardest to teach without drawing the attention of The New York Times or PBS? Why does our definition of “fairness” and “equity” require that schools serving the less fortunate – and only those schools – must serve every child? If you are poor, black or brown and bright in America, do you simply not deserve the classroom conditions taken for granted by those who sprang from wealthier wombs?

Are you OK with that?

Let’s not kid ourselves that “creaming” and “counseling out” are rarities in American public education. But it’s in rich neighborhoods, not poor ones, where such practices thrive. Let’s not kid ourselves that those of us who pay a premium price for our child’s education, whether in private-school tuition or school taxes in well-off communities, don’t demand and receive schools largely free of the hardest to teach.

One final question, perhaps the most awkward of all: If all this creaming, counseling out and ensuring just the right school and just the right environment is a standard part of American education for so many, why does it become a problem – why does it make national news – only when someone gets caught doing it for poor black and brown kids?

– Robert Pondiscio

This first appeared on the Knowledge Bank blog at US News.

Corrected on Nov. 7, 2015: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly indicated how a Montclair, New Jersey school district spent $5 million; the money was for, not from, tuition payments.

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