The "school-to-prision pipeline" has become a widely used term to identify the ways that exclusionary school discipline can steer students away from educational opportunities and towards the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The pipeline has been described as “a confluence of two child-and adolescent-caring systems — schools and juvenile courts — that simultaneously shifted over the past generation from rehabilitative to punitive paradigms.”1 A key aspect of this shift is an increasing reliance on exclusionary school discipline practices, including suspensions, expulsion, and arrests.
As many public school systems have turned to exclusionary school discipline practices over the past two decades, they have also increasingly adopted charter schools as alternatives to traditional public schools. The charter school model is favored by the United States Department of Education under Arne Duncan.2 Despite greater public and scholarly attention to these two issues, there is a dearth of examination of the role of charter school disciplinary practices and their potential effects on charter school students.3 This is the case even though charter schools have become prominent features of many urban school systems, which also seek to educate student populations that are most at risk for falling into the school-to-prison pipeline. This research is an initial attempt to begin filling that gap4 by examining the student codes of conduct for the charter schools in the School District of Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is a valuable site for this initial research because of its heavy reliance on a wide array of charter schools. In Philadelphia, students wishing to attend public school have two choices: traditional public schools5 or charter schools.6 Charter schools are schools that operate as independent public alternatives to traditional public schools.7 They receive state funding but also are allowed to raise money through fundraising and private endowments.8 Although their main, and for some schools their only, revenue stream is public funds, they are run by private boards of directors.9 Philadelphia is ranked third in the nation for the number of students enrolled in charter schools with roughly 62,000 students enrolled in charters.10
Pennsylvania charter school law allows charters to operate free from many of the local and state requirements applied to traditional public schools.11 This freedom is supposed to lead to charter school autonomy, allowing them to experiment with varying education models. This autonomy extends to charter schools’ discipline policies, where charter schools are bound by relatively minimal regulation and oversight.12 Importantly, there is some evidence that this relative freedom has allowed some charter schools to utilize the discipline policies to exclude students from school for relatively minor infractions.13
In order to gain a better understanding of how charter schools in Philadelphia are approaching school discipline, we analyzed every disciplinary code provided to the Philadelphia School District by charter schools within Philadelphia during the 2014 - 2015 school year. Our goal was to examine the provisions relating to detention, suspension, and expulsion, along with other disciplinary responses, to determine what conduct can result in disciplinary consequences, what responses are available for various types of misbehavior, and whether the code language is clear or ambiguous or even accessible to students or potential students and their parents or caregivers.
In order to contextualize this research, we provide discussions of charter schools and school discipline, before explaining our methodology and results. Specifically, the following section of this paper reviews charter schools nationally and then specifically focuses on Philadelphia. Part III reviews the literature on school discipline and the impact of exclusionary school discipline on student behavior and academic progress. Part IV provides the methodology and results of our analysis of the disciplinary codes provided by Philadelphia charter schools to the Philadelphia School District, including our descriptive analysis of particular provisions in many of the codes that raise questions about fairness and equity. We conclude that too many of the codes are not well drafted, and too many follow models of punitive discipline that can be used to push out non-compliant or challenging students. Some codes grant almost complete discretion to school administrators to impose punitive discipline for any behavior the administrator deems problematic.14 This research raises significant concerns about the disciplinary practices of charter schools in Philadelphia and provides a basis for future research to address the critical issues raised by charter school disciplinary practices, including the potential for discriminatory application of policies and the role of school discipline in pushing certain students out of charter schools.15 We hope that this work will spur future research (and accompanying data gathering efforts) that will analyze the implementation of charter school discipline policies to illustrate how charter schools are using their codes. Further, we hope to see the charter sector develop model disciplinary codes that move away from a zero tolerance punitive model towards disciplinary systems based on restorative principles.