Lawmakers praise Noble Street, but vote against charter’s fines

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SPRINGFIELD–Noble Street Network of Charter Schools Superintendent Michael Milkie brought a busload of parents and alumni with him to a Senate Education Committee hearing at the Capitol in Springfield on Wednesday. The affection the group had for Milkie was obvious.

They sat through three hours as the committee debated multiple issues, listening attentively and looking proud as Milkie parried with senators who challenged him at every turn. They gathered around at the end of the day, posing for group photos with Milkie in the center.

The senators roundly praised what Milkie has achieved at Noble Street–a safe and secure learning environment, higher test scores and graduation rates than neighborhood high schools, noteworthy scholarship of Noble graduates at the college level.

“When I talk about the right way to educate students, I call it the Milkie Way,” joked Sen. William Delgado (D-Chicago) – even as he offered legislation to outlaw one of the key tactics that Milkie believes has made Noble Street schools so successful.

Student discipline is the central strategy at Noble, discipline demanding that students follow rules that rely on parents for enforcement. What motivates the parents? They are charged fees to cover part of the costs of the school’s disciplinary program.

The fees – labeled “fines” in recent media reports on the policy – are what “engages” the parents most effectively, Milkie told the committee. Delgado’s amendment to SB 637 would prohibit charter schools from imposing “a fine or any other financial penalty on a student as a disciplinary measure.” The committee approved the amendment 6-4, but whether it can pass both the House and Senate is very much in question.

The charge is usually just a $5 share of the school’s cost of holding a three-hour detention after school. But it can be as much as $140, to help pay for a disciplinary program teaching social skills and other subjects, which students with numerous demerits are required to attend.

There are many ways to rack up a demerit at Noble Street. Chewing gum is a four-demerit offense, and so is academic dishonesty, cheating or plagiarism. Eating outside the lunchroom will cost you two demerits, as will talking during a fire drill. Throwing anything in the lunchroom or failing to return a tray will each cost one demerit.

A student with four demerits within a two-week period gets a detention, for which his parents will be charged a $5 fee. Students with more than 12 detentions, or who have been involved in such activities as fighting, bullying, gangs or drug use or distribution, must attend the disciplinary program, conducted after school for 15 weeks or for four weeks during the summer.

All this is explained, Milkie said, in a number of places–the “contract” that a student and his parent sign as a part of the enrollment process, in information sent to parents and in the “Student Code of Conduct and Disciplinary Policy” section of the handbook given to Noble Street  parents.

Do parents object to the fees charged for misbehavior? “Some do,” Milkie conceded. But he noted that Noble’s enrollment has grown from less than 200 students at the beginning to more than 5,000 at 10 campuses today – and more than 8,000 applied for this year’s freshman class.

Because of the safe environment and the academic success that Milkie said are results of the disciplinary policy, “Parents are flocking to us.”

Noble’s students are mostly from poor families, with 87% eligible for free or reduced-price lunches under federal guidelines. They often arrive with behavior issues, Milkie said, but the typical student who may earn 12 or 15 demerits as a freshman usually gets just two or so by senior year. Students respond positively to the disciplinary code, he said, as do their parents.

Delgado explained to the committee that he knows Milkie well, respects him as an educator and is impressed by the successes. But, he said, “We just disagree about this policy.” Many constituents have complained to him about the fines, he said, and asserted that he “could have filled the hearing room” with opponents of the policy.

He also referred to recent media accounts in which students and parents decried Noble’s policy.

No public school is allowed by law to charge such fees, Delgado pointed out, and no research has generated findings that such “financial punishment” has beneficial effects.

“I don’t want to micromanage,” he added, “but we see a problem.”

Committee members Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) and Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago) joined Delgado in vigorous opposition to the fines. “I have also heard many complaints,” Lightford told Milkie.

She agreed that Noble Street has achieved exceptional educational success, but “I just don’t know if [charging fines] is the right thing to do.”

In a response to a question, Lightford learned from a charter school association representative that no other charter in Illinois is known to have such a policy. That information seemed to her more important than any of the successes Milkie said were results of the parental engagement the discipline code and fines promote.

Martinez also told of hearing complaints about Noble’s fines, and she had a complaint of her own. Noble parents had called her in support of the policy after Delgado filed his amendment on March 7. These callers usually “didn’t even know what they were calling about,” Martinez said. “They just called because they were told to call. They tied up my [phone] lines.”

Martinez lectured Milkie about the difficult economy, the high unemployment and economic stress on low-income families. She expressed outrage that the school would collect nearly $300,000 in fines over a three-year period. “What do you do with all that money?”

Milkie said it costs Noble an average of about $19,000 per campus annually to cover the costs of detentions and the summer and after-school programs, but the fees generate only about $16,000 per campus. Parents of misbehaving students should pay the costs of the disciplinary program, Milkie said. Otherwise “the parents of those who do not misbehave will have to pay.”

Sen. David Leuchtefeld, a Republican from the small town of Okawville near St. Louis, strongly opposed Delgado’s amendment. He challenged Delgado, “Isn’t this micromanaging?” Leuchtefeld was a school teacher for more than three decades.

 “We have finally found something that works,” he said. “Why would we want to change it?”

Ultimately, Lightford and Martinez were joined by Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago), Sen. John Mulroe (D-Chicago), Delgado (who was temporarily on the committee in the absence of Sen. James Meeks) and Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Highwood) in voting the bill to the Senate floor.

All four Republicans – Leuchtefeld, Sen. Christine Johnson (R-Sycamore), Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-Highland) and Sen. Suzi Schmidt (R-Lake Villa) – voted against Delgado’s measure. Schmidt had been particularly enthusiastic in support of Noble’s disciplinary policy and successful record.

Whether the bill will pass both the House and Senate and arrive at the desk of Gov. Pat Quinn to be signed into law seems questionable. Getting 30 votes in the Senate will be a challenge. Republicans are likely to be joined by at least a few Democrats in opposition.

Passing the House may be even more challenging. Speaker Michael Madigan has the persona of a leader who values discipline above everything. Noble Street is also favored strongly by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who surely has Madigan’s phone number.

The Leuchtefeld question – “Why would we change it? – is likely to resonate.

Jim Broadway is the founder of State School News Service.

(Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that students, not parents and alumni, came with Milkie to Springfield, and that 12 demerits, not 12 detentions, sent students to a disciplinary program. We regret the errors.)