Charter Schools Segregate Students by Race and Class

With the imminent release in Australia of the US education documentary “Waiting for Superman” which spruiks the role of charter schools in improving education outcomes, a study on charter schools published last month provides some sound research to assess the film.

In some regions, white students are overrepresented in charter schools while in other charter schools Black and Hispanic students have little exposure to white students. It also found that while data about the extent to which charter schools serve low-income and English Language Learners (ELL) is incomplete, it does suggest that a large proportion of charter schools do not enrol these students.

The study analysed the relationship between charter schools and segregation across 40 US states, the District of Columbia, and several dozen metropolitan areas with large enrolments of charter school students in 2007–08.

It also notes that extensive studies exploring the benefits of charter schools reveal no net academic gains for students as indicated by test scores. There is little known about the impact of charters on other achievement benchmarks like graduation rates or college matriculation, especially for racial and ethnic sub-groups.

Despite this, several new federal initiatives by the Obama Administration will likely result in an even more rapid expansion in the coming years than in the previous decade. The policies encouraging charter growth are built upon the belief that charter schools can contribute significantly to improving public schools. However, impact of charters on diversity in schools is almost never mentioned.

The study demonstrates that, while segregation for Blacks among all public schools has been increasing for nearly two decades, black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings. Two out of every three Black charter school students attend intensely segregated schools in fifteen states across the country. In four of those states, 90% of Black students attend a hyper-segregated charter school. These figures are staggering, and remain considerably higher than in states with the highest Black segregation among regular public schools.

In addition, more than two-fifths of black charter school students attended schools where 99% of students were from under-represented minority backgrounds. That figure was, by far, the highest of any other racial group, and nearly three times as high as black students in traditional public schools.

While patterns of charter school segregation are most striking for Black students, other racial groups have also experienced greater isolation due to charters. In the West, where traditional public schools are the most racially diverse, and in some areas of the South, White students are over-enrolled in charter schools. In some cases, White segregation is higher in charter schools despite the fact that overall charter schools enrol fewer White students. These trends suggest that charter schools are contributing to “white flight” in the country’s two most racially diverse regions.

Latinos are under-enrolled in charter schools in some Western states, though they make up the largest share of students. Latino charter students are less segregated than Blacks overall; but in a dozen states, a majority of Latino charter students are in highly segregated minority schools, including states (like Arizona and Texas) educating large numbers of Latinos.

Charter schools are most likely to be established in urban locations, alongside traditional public school systems that educate a disproportionate number of low-income and minority students. More than half of charter schools located in cities enrolled at least 90% students of color in 2007–08, indicative of considerably higher segregation in urban charters even when compared to their regular, already isolated, public school counterparts.

The study says that there is a severe lack of some essential data on charters. It says that basic questions about the extent to which charter schools enrol low-income and ELL students cannot be conclusively answered.

One-quarter of charter schools did not report whether they enrolled students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRL), a common measure of students from low-income households. In a number of states, charter schools which did not report FRL data had more extensive concentration of White students than those that did. Estimates suggest that charter schools may under-enrol ELL students, but the data are inconclusive on this point.

All this suggests that low-income, minority, and English Language Learner students may not have access to some charter schools to the same extent as white and middle-class children do.

The study notes that US states often have weak civil rights and equity policies regarding charter school establishment and enrolment. Little state or federal direct action has been taken to change or correct racial isolation in charter schools despite growing evidence about this persistent and growing problem.

The Obama Administration, like its predecessors, is emphasizing choice and innovation, primarily in the form of new charter schools, as a way to improve the education of all students. The study states that if, as the Administration has proclaimed, education is the “civil rights issue of our time,” then federal leadership is needed to provide incentives for improving the integrative quality of charter schools, along with clear safeguards to prevent the resegregation of public schools via increasing charter school enrolment.

More than half a century after the US Supreme Court ruled that separate schooling was fundamentally unequal, a massive and accumulating body of social science evidence continues to affirm that unanimous decision. This new study shows that charter schools comprise a divisive and segregated sector of the already deeply stratified public school system.

Trevor Cobbold

Erica Frankenberg; Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and Jia Wang 2011. Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation, Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 19 (1).

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