Discipline bill should include charter schools

Legislation aimed at promoting positive school discipline and reducing the number of students who are suspended or expelled has been approved by the Indiana House and sent to the Senate. As amended in the House, the bill doesn’t mandate better policies, but it’s a step in the right direction.

It would be a bigger step, however, if lawmakers extended their reach to charter schools, including “no-excuses” charter schools that use strict discipline to enforce compliant student behavior.

House Bill 1421, in its current form, would:

  • Have the Indiana Department of Education develop a model school discipline policy and provide help to school corporations that want to implement better discipline policies and procedures.
  • Have the department survey school corporations about their use of positive discipline and report the findings to the legislature by Sept. 1, 2018.
  • Assign a legislative study committee the task of examining positive school discipline and restorative justice policies with an eye to whether they should be required in the future.

None of that is controversial, and the bill passed the House by a vote of 92-0.

“There have been significant amendments to the bill, but if passed it would still represent significant and important movement towards more positive, evidence-based disciplinary plans and practices in our schools,” said supporter JauNae Hanger, president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana.

As drafted, the bill would have required schools to adopt positive discipline policies and take steps to reduce suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement. Mandates were removed after education groups pushed back, concerned about a lack of input and a tight timeline for new requirements.

“I think our goal is to see some positive changes,” Rep. Robert Behning, the bill’s author, told me. “Sometimes making it voluntary means there will be more fidelity.”

Behning suggested he is open to further amendments to include charter schools in the DOE survey and the offer of state policy assistance. But if the legislature gets around to mandating a less punitive approach to discipline, he’s reluctant to include charter schools. Following the idea that charter schools should be loosely regulated by the state, he would look to charter authorizers to address the issue.

To his credit, he has looked at the data and sees a need to do something. One in 10 Indiana students were suspended in the most recent year for which data are available. For African-American students, the rate was one in five. Studies have found that black students tend to be punished more harshly than white students for the same offenses. When students are suspended, they aren’t in school and learning.

“I’ve shown the data to people and had people tell me, ‘No, you can’t be correct,’” Behning said. “It’s pretty astounding. It’s going to take a cultural change; it’s not something that happens immediately.”

Anyone who has followed this issue knows some of the most egregious abuse of suspensions has been at no-excuses charter schools, like New York’s Success Academy schools. I haven’t seen extensive Indiana data, but there’s evidence some charters here are quick to suspend. Indianapolis’ Phalen Leadership Academy, for example, posted a news release two years ago touting the turnaround of a student who, at age 7, “had the most suspensions for misbehavior of any child in our entire school.”

Is that typical? Has it changed? Maybe the Department of Education survey this year will tell us. And if this is an issue, legislators should tackle it despite their concerns about regulating charter schools.

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