Critics say costly charter school discipline hurts families

February 14, 2012

Some Chicago Public Schools students and parents are charging that one of the city's largest charter networks is making hundreds of thousands of dollars by fining students for minor misconduct.   

They say the discipline policy at Noble Street Charter Schools, which can include $5 fines for behavior like bringing chips to school or not looking a teacher in the eye, hurts low-income families and can lead to students leaving Noble schools if fines pile up.

WBEZ and Catalyst covered the issue of enrollemt and discipline at Noble and other charter schools in 2010.

A student with mulitple fines or detentions is required to attend a summer behavior class that costs $140 at Noble Charters. 

The advocacy groups, including Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) and Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, held a joint press conference Monday. They said Noble Charter schools have brought in almost $400,000 over the past two years in student fines.  

Noble is one of Chicago's largest charter networks. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been quoted as saying that Noble’s discipline policy is the “secret sauce” for quality education.

Michael Milkie runs the 10-school Noble schools network and acknowledges that Noble has collected hundreds of thousands in disciplinary fines. 

He says the system of charging for misbehavior has existed since the network opened  its first charter school and was put in place to help those that were not being disruptive in class. 

“For far too long in this city, students who behave well are having their educational dollars diverted from them to administer discipline for the students who are not behaving well or behaving improperly and so we’re trying to correct that,” says Milkie.

He says that money Noble schools gain from fines is used to help with the cost of running the discipline programs and only partially defrays the cost of administering them.

Charter schools receive some public funding but are allowed to create their own rules outside of the public school system.

Donna Moore is a parent of a Noble high school student. She says said was attracted to the school because it was small and non-selective and offered challenging curriculum and academic support.  But Moore says her perception of the school has changed because her son has been disciplined too often.  Now Moore is publically opposing the school’s discipline policy.

“No punishment has been for disrupting the classroom. No punishments have been the result of fighting or any type of aggressive behaviors," Moore said when asked about incidents when her son was punished.

"They have been for very benign issues like falling asleep in detention, or ... having a shoe untied, or a button unbuttoned,” says Moore.

Moore says her son is being held back a grade level due to behavior issues at the school. She says the school hasn’t made an offer to help her son academically and instead has offered to help transfer him out. However Moore, does not want him to leave. "Should I run?" she says. 

"Why not keep my son in there and let my son know that it's not him - it's the system that needs to change," says Moore.

Kelly Castleberry is also a parent of a Noble Street charter student. Her child attends Muchin College Prep.  

“It’s strict but I believe our children need strict discipline," she said Monday after the press conference.  "When you attend a Noble campus there are consequences for your actions. It teaches students the responsibilities of being responsible… and it teaches the parents to be responsible for their children.” 

Castleberry says she’s heard many stories of parents leaving the school and later returning.

“They know that once they put their child somewhere else that Muchin is really the best thing for them. They don’t have to worry about their children's safety. They don’t have to worry about a lot of the other issues that you do have to worry about with the neighborhood schools and that’s why they bring them back to Muchin,” says Castleberry

The parent group PURE obtained the updated information on Noble's disciplinary fines through the Freedom of Information Act. 

The parent and student groups say they want Chicago Public Schools to  stop aproving contracts to charter schools that adopt discipline policies similar Noble's. 

The Noble Street Charter Schools Network is scheduled to open four new charters in the next two years.