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Education Reporter

IL Legislature Targets Successful Charter Schools
Illinois legislators are targeting Chicago's Noble Street Charter Network with a bill that would prohibit schools from fining students for misbehavior — despite the fact that Noble's disciplinary practices are widely thought to be the reason for its schools' dramatic successes. And while some parents believe Noble's practice of fining students for minor infractions like chewing gum or failing to make eye contact with teachers is discriminatory, Noble officials say the school network's results — and the waiting list for admission — speak for themselves.

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Noble made headlines in February when it was announced that the network of charter schools had collected more than $386,000 in fines over the last 3 years, much of it levied from the minority and low-income students who make up 90% of the student body. "Noble is forcing low-income parents to choose between paying the rent and keeping their child in school," said Donna Moore, parent of a student at a Noble school, in a statement released by Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) and Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE). "This is a hidden tax on Chicago's Black and Latino families, and it's wrong." VOYCE and PURE have issued a report stating that Noble's disciplinary fine policy "surreptitiously raises the cost of public education."

Noble schools penalize students for both major and minor disciplinary problems. Students receive demerits for talking out of turn in class, chewing gum, and other relatively minor infractions. Four demerits equal detention and a $5 fee. Twelve demerits warrant a disciplinary class and a $140 fee to help cover the cost of that class. While some parents believe these measures teach responsibility, others say the system smacks of greed. "We are absolutely appalled that Noble is padding its pockets off the backs of hardworking people by fining them," said Alexi Nunn Freeman of Advancement Project. PURE's Julie Woestehoff called the fee system "dehumanizing" and said it was more appropriate for a "reform school than a college prep."

Illinois State Senator Willie Delgado responded to these allegations by proposing to amend an existing bill with the statement "a charter school may not impose a fine or other financial penalty on a student as a disciplinary measure." He has also proposed a second amendment that would "waive all fees assessed by the charter school on children whose parents are unable to afford them." Protestors fear the fines' success may lead to their being adopted by other Chicago public schools, where the graduation rates are nearly half those found at Noble schools.

Though vocal detractors like VOYCE and PURE do exist, it may be difficult for Senator Delgado to rally support for his amendment. Noble schools dramatically outperform their counterparts, and school officials say the fine-based disciplinary policies are a key part of this success. "Kids learn punctuality, dependability, and that there are consequences for behavior," said Michael Milkie, Noble's founder. "If kids feel they're going to be safe, if they're in a protected environment, they are more likely to develop the habits that make them successful in class." Kimberly Neal, a Principal at a Noble Network school, agrees. "An example we always give students and parents: 'If you are late for work, would you have a job?'" she said. Noble officials are also quick to point out that the fees collected only partially cover the costs of enforcement. "If we didn't have the fees, we would divert dollars from everyone's education to staff these classes and detentions," said Milkie.

The Noble approach does not work for everyone. Last year 473 of the network's 5,000 students left to attend other schools. But, as Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, an enthusiastic supporter of Noble, reminded parents recently, attendance is strictly voluntary. Noble students are free to leave in favor of other public schools. "Facts are a stubborn thing. Parents can make a choice. If they don't want to do it, they don't have to go there. They choose to go there and they choose to resend their kids year-in, year-out. . . . More parents — almost by a ratio of 4-to-1 - want to send their kids to this school [because] it has incredible results," he said. Noble currently has 8,000 applicants for just 2,600 open spots.

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