- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 27, 2016

BOSTON (AP) - A group opposed to a November ballot question that would expand charter schools in Massachusetts cited what they called excessive and disproportionate rates of discipline at the schools and called Wednesday for state education officials to release more data about student suspensions.

“We know from personal experience that children as young as five years old are suspended from charter schools over and over again for minor non-violent offenses,” parents of several former charter school students wrote in a letter released by Save Our Schools Massachusetts.

The letter cited a handful of charter schools with suspension rates as high as 40 percent for all students, and in some cases above 50 percent for minority students and children with disabilities. The average statewide suspension rate for Massachusetts public schools was less than 3 percent, the letter stated.

One parent, Malikka Williams of Boston, said her kindergarten age son was suspended 16 times earlier in the school year, for infractions as minor as giggling during class, before she moved him to a traditional public school where he was not suspended for the remainder of the year.

The ballot question would allow up to a dozen new or expanded charters each year outside of existing state caps. Supporters of the proposal, including Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, say charters offer high-quality educational alternatives and cite a waiting list of 32,000 students and their parents seeking limited spots in the schools.

Critics, including teachers unions, say charters drain financial resources from traditional public schools and fail to adequately serve certain groups of students, including those who have disabilities or who come from homes where English is not the primary language spoken.

Great Schools Massachusetts, a coalition backing the ballot question, accused opponents of spreading “half-truths and falsehoods” about charter schools.

“In communities with the most demand and the highest number of charters, charter schools actually have far lower attrition rates - meaning, more students are staying in school and succeeding,” the group said in a statement.

State education officials said they were reviewing the letter, which called for the release of more data about the number of children who are suspended multiple times from charter schools for non-violent offenses, and the number and percentage of students who complete the full school year at their charter schools following their suspensions.

The state already was collecting and analyzing disciplinary data for all of the state’s public schools, Education Secretary James Peyser said.

Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said officials had convened a group of educators from both traditional and charter schools with disproportionately high suspension rates to work on strategies “for building engaged, orderly, constructive learning environments while limiting the use of suspension.”

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