Chicago: Charter schools collect almost $400,000 in discipline "fees"

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Would you pay $5 as a penalty for your kid neglecting to have shoelaces tied at school?

Chicago is buzzing over a controversial practice aimed at forcing inner-city school kids to follow rules. The Noble Network of Charter Schools, which has received high praise from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is charging its mostly low-income students five bucks for violating certain rules, which reportedly include bringing “flaming hot” potato chips to school, chewing gum and falling asleep in class.

A group of parents whose kids attend Noble’s 10 Chicago charter high schools rose up this month to publicly object to the practice, which they are denouncing as both overkill and a cynical way for the company to collect extra money, according to reports in the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets.

Some parents also allege the practice is used to push out kids the schools would rather not have. The Tribune has a chart showing the charter’s graduation rates but also its high rate of non-returning students.

At news conferences, parents and a group called Parents United for Responsible Education said they obtained documents showing that Noble has collected almost $400,000 in fines from families since the 2008-2009 academic year. Noble calls the charges “fees,” not fines. Last year, the charter company raked in almost $190,000 in fines for infractions and $140 fees for summer behavior classes some repeat offenders are required to take.

Parent Donna Moore called the fees a "hidden tax." She told the Chicago Sun-Times that her son has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and that he earned so many demerits he was required to repeat a grade. His violations were minor, she said, that posed no threat to anyone else and were for infractions such as not sitting up straight and not “tracking the teacher.”

An Associated Press story explains how the collection works. “Students at Noble schools receive demerits for various infractions — four for having a cellphone or one for untied shoelaces. Four demerits within a two-week period earn them a detention and $5 fine. Students who get 12 detentions in a year must attend a summer behavior class that costs $140."

Michael Milkie, the charter’s superintendent, said the fines help pay for having a dean of discipline and for the costs of after-school detention supervision. He and some other parents of Noble students defended the dollar fines as a way to show children that their actions have consequences, and to deter bigger problems, such as physical fights, to keep order so kids can focus on studies.

Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff, rushed to a “spirited defense” of Noble, according to the Sun-Times. He said the results at the charters, which have waiting lists, were something to “marvel at” compared to regular public schools in Chicago. “Parents can make a choice. If they don’t want to do it, they don’t have to go there,” he said.

On its website, Noble says its schools maintain “a discipline environment to foster success.”

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