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'Disciplinary fees' show the trouble with charter schools and privatization

A student at Noble Street College Prep does classwork at the school in Chicago in February. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
A student at Noble Street College Prep does classwork at the school in Chicago in February.

Our neighbors at msnbc's Melissa Harris-Perry report that Chicago's Noble Network of Charter Schools is making some cash on the side by charging "disciplinary fees" to unruly students. The parents of one teenager, writes Traci Lee, had to pay close to $2,000 in fines for infractions including "an unkempt appearance and not making eye contact."

Unreasonable, perhaps, but not unprofitable. Writes Lee: "According to the Chicago Tribune, Noble raked in approximately $200,000 in disciplinary fees  in 2011 and almost $400,000 since the 2008-09 school year."

That's small change compared to the nearly $70 million in funding the charter school network is expected to receive this year, but it's enough to make it worth the effort. Noble Network CEO Michael Milkie defended the schools' actions last year, telling the Tribune that the fees not only clamped down on violence, but also offset the costs for the school to administer detention.

Indeed, disciplinary fees are a win-win for charter schools: Not only are they reasonably lucrative, but there's also a great way to enforce social control. If a kids' unruly behavior puts a significant financial burden on his parents, you can bet those parents will do everything they can to get their son in line. The increased classroom discipline, in turn, reflects well on the charter school, which might then expect more city funding.

So the charter network has considerable incentive to make the fines increasingly draconian, both to discourage infractions and to squeeze more money out of the kids who still misbehave. But they also have an incentive to create more and more rules which the students might then break. The greater the risk of breaking a rule, the more likely the schools are to make a buck off their students.

Better yet, the schools can justify the proliferation of seemingly harsh and arbitrary fines—say, fining students hundreds of dollars for "not making eye contact"—by using "Broken Windows" theory. Under James Q. Wilson's theory (dissected here by Mike Konczal), you could argue that such rules preserve order by targeting potential troublemakers and punishing them into submission before they have the chance to do anything which would actually harm the community. It's the perfect combination of money-making scheme and authoritarian policing program.

Of course, such a system sounds like a nightmare for the actual students and parents: an education system governed by fear of financial ruin. It's a fundamental flaw in the charterization of public education that such an outcome seems not only reasonable but ideal from a management perspective. Charter advocates talk a good game about freedom and school choice, but private institutions which control public goods have plenty of incentives to be authoritarian—even tyrannical.

As the Noble Network example goes, debt is a crucial tool for enforcing such tyranny. I wrote about another example over the summer: When local governments outsource debt collection to private companies, the contractors will frequently lard on additional debts as punishment for late payments. As a result, one man "has spent a total of 24 months in jail and owes $10,000, all for traffic and license violations that began a decade ago."

Needless to say, the analogy between the education system and the criminal justice system is not a flattering one.