Show of hands: Anyone surprised it was charter school that expelled Tiana Parker?

empty desksCharter schools have been in the news recently. This is due in large part to Tiana Parker, an adorable 7-year-old in Tulsa who was unceremoniously sent home the second week of school for violating her school’s dress code policy, which labeled dreadlocks and afros – hairstyles natural to black children – as “faddish.”

After a public outcry, the board of Deborah Brown Community School, Tulsa’s first charter, rescinded the policy. One might think case closed, end of story. Ah, but not so fast.

The charter school’s new policy swaps the section on hairstyles with a clause giving the school administration the right to address “any personal hygiene issues that it believes causes a risk…or detracts from the educational environment” — the subtext being that natural hair is a health risk.

In media interviews, Tiana’s father also flagged another disturbing policy at his daughter’s former school – spanking students. Tiana’s older sister was removed from Deborah Brown when the Parkers refused to allow teachers to spank their child. While corporal punishment is allowed in Oklahoma, public schools in the state banned the practice decades ago.

The charter school formula (publicly funded, privately run) was intended to be a new form of public school that would develop and share innovative practices, and lead to improvements among traditional public schools. There have been individual success stories, but we are also learning about the pitfalls of the charter school process: “freedom” wielded without oversight or scrutiny can lead to poor outcomes.

In too many cases, charter schools are public schools that operate with impunity, unaccountable to parents and taxpayers alike. As Tiana’s story reveals, the freewheeling, free-market analogies applied to education don’t always hold up when the “consumers” are children. You quickly discover that the grooming of black children’s hair earns special attention as a slippery slope that can lead to disorder.

With the growth of unsupervised charter schools, eliminating public school bureaucracy has created its own set of problems. There have been cases of financial failures, forcing some schools to close mid-year, with kids suffering the academic and social consequences. There’s also the issue of ‘free’ public education that’s not quite free. In Chicago, a network of charter schools raked in almost $400,000 by charging parents fines for student infractions like chewing gum, falling asleep in class, and carrying a Sharpie.

These are the consequences for students that are fortunate to make it through the door. Many times charter schools put up hurdles to make sure that only the “right” students are even admitted. A special investigation by Reuters found charter schools use a range of screening practices such as “disciplinary history, motivation, special needs and even their citizenship, sometimes in violation of state and federal law.” Once a child makes it into the school, charters have also been accused of dumping weaker students back into the public school system, thinning the herd to generate better test scores. In New York and Chicago, parents have pushed back on charter school “push out” by exposing the high number of English Language Learners and students with special behavioral and learning needs who have been suspended at public charter schools.

With charter schools springing up like crazed dandelions, the recklessness of this laissez-faire approach to public education is taking on new urgency.

A nationwide epidemic of school closings is underway in ChicagoPhiladelphiaWashington, D.C. and other cities. In every case, the closings are concentrated chiefly in poor and minority communities, with charter schools eagerly waiting to fill the void. In Philadelphia, as students bear the brunt of the wholesale destruction of a public school system, the district developed a step-by-step guide to help charter schools and private developers scoop up vacant buildings.

Cases like Tiana Parker’s expose the downside of replacing public schools with unmonitored charter schools. While there is a role for charter schools in the public education system, charter schools should be held to at least the same standards of transparency and openness required of traditional public schools.

Established to be laboratories of experimentation, charter schools have morphed into an elaborate system of publicly-funded private schools that fend off children with special needs, push out students who don’t work hard and police little girls’ hair.

As the saying goes, with freedom comes great responsibility. That calls for more charter school scrutiny. As the number of charter schools increases, states must do a better job of holding taxpayer-funded charter schools accountable for quality and operational standards.

Even the most ardent charter school supporters should be concerned that a lack of oversight and uneven quality is degrading the charter school movement. More Tianas can only diminish the brand.