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District of Columbia Charter Schools: Multi-Agency Plan Needed to Continue Progress Addressing High and Disproportionate Discipline Rates

GAO-17-165 Published: Feb 09, 2017. Publicly Released: Feb 09, 2017.
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What GAO Found

Discipline rates (out-of-school suspension and expulsion rates) at District of Columbia (D.C.) charter schools dropped from school years 2011-12 through 2013-14 (the most recent years of national Department of Education data available). However, these rates remained about double the rates of charter schools nationally and slightly higher than D.C. traditional public schools and were also disproportionately high for some student groups and schools. Specifically, during this period, suspension rates in D.C. charter schools dropped from about 16 percent of all students to about 13 percent, and expulsions, which were relatively rare, went down by about a half percent, according to GAO's analysis. However, D.C. Black students and students with disabilities were disproportionately suspended and expelled. For example, Black students represented 80 percent of students in D.C. charter schools, but 93 percent of those suspended and 92 percent of those expelled. Further, 16 of D.C.'s 105 charter schools suspended over a fifth of their students over the course of school year 2015-16, according to D.C. data.

Suspensions and Expulsions of Black Students and Students with Disabilities in District of Columbia Charter Schools Were Disproportionate Relative to Enrollment, School Year 2013-14

Suspensions and Expulsions of Black Students and Students with Disabilities in District of Columbia Charter Schools Were Disproportionate Relative to Enrollment, School Year 2013-14

Note: Numbers may not add to 100 due to rounding.

The Public Charter School Board (PCSB) regularly uses several mechanisms to oversee charter schools' use of suspensions and expulsions. For example, PCSB reviews school-level data and schools' discipline policies to encourage schools to reduce reliance on suspensions and expulsions to manage student behavior. Several D.C. agencies have roles in overseeing charter schools and reported collaborating on other issues, but we observed a lack of consensus around roles and responsibilities regarding charter school discipline. Further, a plan to issue regulations addressing discipline disparities among D.C. public schools was unsuccessful because the D.C. agency that planned to issue the regulations was unsure of its authority to do so. Absent a coordinated plan to continue progress in reducing discipline rates in charter schools, as well as clarified roles, responsibilities, and authorities of D.C. agencies with respect to oversight of discipline in charter schools, continued progress may be slowed.

Why GAO Did This Study

D.C. charter schools served about 45 percent of D.C.'s public school students in the 2015-16 school year. The District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995 established PCSB to authorize and oversee charter schools. PCSB also oversees charter schools' use of suspensions and expulsions.

The District of Columbia Appropriations Act, 2005, as amended, included a provision for GAO to conduct a periodic management evaluation of PCSB. This report examines (1) what is known about suspensions and expulsions in D.C. charter schools, and (2) to what extent PCSB oversees charter schools' use of suspensions and expulsions. GAO analyzed the most recent national federal data (school years 2011-12 and 2013-14) and D.C. data (school year 2015-16) on suspensions and expulsions; reviewed relevant laws, regulations, and agency policies and documentation; and interviewed officials at PCSB and other D.C. agencies, as well as other stakeholders selected to provide a range of perspectives. GAO also visited three charter schools that had high discipline rates.


GAO is making two recommendations, including that D.C. education agencies collaborate on a plan to further reduce discipline rates and make explicit agency roles, responsibilities, and authorities regarding charter school discipline. The agencies did not explicitly agree or disagree with our recommendations and indicated they could deepen their collaboration.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
DC Public Charter School Board PCSB should further explore ways to more accurately measure behavior-related time out of school--both partial and full day removals--not captured under current reporting procedures.
Closed – Implemented
PCSB revised its discipline data template for school year 2018-19 so that schools can now report suspension length in increments as small as .25 days. PCSB officials told us they will continue to allow for the reporting of quarter-day suspensions going forward. In addition, since 2017, PCSB has worked to improve its existing processes for cross-checking discipline, enrollment, and attendance data, generating error reports when these data are inconsistent and reaching out to schools on a quarterly basis about unresolved errors.
Executive Office of the Mayor The D.C. Mayor should direct the Deputy Mayor for Education and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to deepen collaboration with PCSB and other relevant stakeholders, such as charter school local educational agencies, to develop a coordinated plan to continue progress in reducing discipline rates and, as part of this process, make explicit their respective roles, responsibilities, and authorities with regard to discipline in D.C. charter schools. This plan could include developing additional guidance, training, or resources, consistent with the unique autonomy of charter schools.
Closed – Implemented
In May 2018, the D.C. Council passed the Student Fair Access to School Amendment Act of 2018. This Act put limits on the use of suspensions and expulsions beginning in the 2019-2020 school year. It also required all local education agencies in the District to adopt discipline policies with certain components, such as seeking the involvement of parents in responding to disciplinary incidents. In addition to monitoring schools' compliance with the Act, the District's education agencies have taken further steps to collaborate on the issue of discipline. For example, in 2019 the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) convened a Discipline Working Group, which was open to PCSB and charter school agencies. The Working Group collaborated on improving discipline data collection and implementing the Act. OSSE has also offered trainings to teachers and school staff, including those in charter schools, on behavioral health, trauma-informed care, and restorative justice. In addition, OSSE hosted two conferences on school climate in 2019, which included sessions on restorative justice and reducing disciplinary referrals. Finally, OSSE provided clarification on the roles and responsibilities of the DC education agencies with respect to school discipline.

Full Report

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