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Manhattan Institute

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If You Want a Safe School, Opt for a Charter

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If You Want a Safe School, Opt for a Charter

New York Post October 16, 2017
Urban PolicyNYCEducation
EducationPre K-12

In the wake of the tragic school stabbings that killed one student and critically injured another, parents across the city are asking: Are my kids safe at school — and if not, how can I keep them safe?

To answer that, I analyzed student and teacher answers to safety-related questions on the NYC School Survey. And in a forthcoming Manhattan Institute report, I show how the data provide a clear answer: If you want your kids to be safer, try to get them into a charter school.

From a parent’s perspective, a charter school is frequently the safest option in the neighborhood.

The report compares charter schools to their three closest district school neighbors serving similar grades. For middle and high schools, each school’s safety score was the average of six seminal safety questions: whether they feel safe in their classrooms and hallways, and whether they see fights, bullying, drugs and gangs as a problem.

For elementary schools, which don’t ask students questions, I rely on teacher perception of order and discipline.

When a charter school’s student safety index falls within 5 percentage points of the district schools, or teacher response falls within 10 points, the school is deemed similarly safe; above those cutoffs, a charter is considered safer, and below it’s considered less safe.

The results are most striking at the middle-school level. Twenty-seven charter schools are safer than most of their district-school neighbors, 24 are similar and three are less safe. At the elementary level, 24 charter schools are safer, 20 are similar and 12 are less safe. And at the high-school level, 14 charters are safer, 18 are similar and eight are less safe.

While every charter school is different, and the advantage is not universal, the conclusion is unmistakable: From a parent’s perspective, a charter school is frequently the safest option in the neighborhood.

Charter opponents may allege that this neighbor-to-neighbor analysis misses the fact that charters can serve different kinds of students. But so far as basic demographic factors go, charter schools enjoy an across-the-board advantage.

District schools display a sad consistency: The more poor kids, disabled kids, black kids or Hispanic kids a school has, the less safe students there feel.

But charter schools have broken the link between poverty and school order; the trend there is actually slightly positive: The higher the concentration of students in poverty at a charter school, the safer those students feel. And after controlling for poverty, disability and race, charter schools still retain a statistically significant safety advantage.

Opponents may yet allege that charter students are different in ways you can’t statistically observe. And perhaps that plays a role. But there’s little doubt that charter schools are different because charter leaders have the freedom to hold students to clear and high standards.

Jeffrey Litt, superintendent of the Icahn Charter Schools network, tells me that “mostly, our students are too busy being academically challenged to act out.” But when they do, “we’ve adopted a ‘broken windows’ approach to school order.

“We sweat the small stuff. And we make sure that our teachers are on the same page and our students feel that consistency.”

This approach is anathema to the de Blasio administration. Extending the ideology of Black Lives Matter down into the classroom, discipline “reformers” have argued that racial difference in suspension rates are the result of teacher bias and that therefore teachers ought to be reined in.

There’s little doubt that charter schools are different because charter leaders have the freedom to hold students to clear and high standards.

To suspend a student for a moderate infraction, principals are required to submit requests with extensive documentation to central-office bureaucrats. As one principal put it, there’s “an unwritten rule where schools know these suspensions aren’t going to be approved, so schools don’t put a whole lot of them through.”

Teachers, in turn, become reluctant to ask their principal to make the request, and students know that the rules of the game have changed. And both students and teachers agree that school order has deteriorated under this new system.

Yet even as his policies undermined teachers’ authority in district schools, Mayor de Blasio attempted to limit the expansion of safer alternatives. An administration that valued student safety over social-justice ideology would do the exact opposite: empower teachers and parents.

Sadly, it remains to be seen whether de Blasio will do the most basic thing that teachers ask of students: learn from experience and evidence.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post

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Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.

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