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Charter Schools and Segregation: More Context

• Sam Duell

The Urban Institute and Education Next just published a new and different kind of study that sought to measure the effects of charter schools on racial isolation. The study finds that charter schools do contribute to racial segregation. As an education reporter from Chalkbeat has pointed out, the researchers clarify the impact is small, but it’s still there. Given that headline, the study was sure to receive some attention.

For charter school advocates like myself who believe that these schools play an essential role in meeting the unique needs of individual students, families and communities, what is the best response to the study?

Advocates could justifiably challenge the use of the word “segregation.” That’s the tact Chris Stewart took when he wrote on Twitter:

Stewart states that because no one is forcing parents and guardians to send their students to charter schools and because charter schools are legally prohibited from discriminating based on race or ethnicity, charter schools are not forcefully isolating racial groups of students. Even in cases where a charter school student body is composed of a single race, that school is not “segregated” because all the families represented in the school would have freely chosen to send their students to that school.

Researchers could question the study’s methodology, which depends heavily on relative measures of segregation and the variance ratio index.

This index, which analyzes “how predictive a student’s own race or ethnicity is of the racial or ethnic composition of her school peers” (see p. 13), seeks to answer the following question: how likely is it that a specific student in a specific grade would attend school with only students of the same racial or ethnic background? If the likelihood is high (100 percent) then the school is completely segregated. If the likelihood is low (0 percent) then the school is fully integrated.

To ensure their methodology was valid and reliable, the researchers used another method, the dissimilarity index, in a parallel analysis. And according to Chalkbeat, other researchers have responded positively to the strength of the methodology. That is why the methodological debate is not likely to be a strong counterargument to the study.

Perhaps the best response is to acknowledge that charter schools do play some role in racial isolation while highlighting additional important context that contrasts this role with historical trends.

Facts About Charter Schools and the Families They Serve

For example, consider the following points about charter schools and the families they serve:

Charter schools are increasingly serving higher percentages of students who identify as racial or ethnic minorities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 43 percent of charter school students in 2000 identified as white compared with only 32 percent in the fall of 2016. That means over two-thirds of charter school students are not white.

There are many charter schools which serve concentrations of African American and Hispanic students, especially in urban areas. In 2018, NCES reported that:

  • 57 percent of charter schools are in cities, compared with 25 percent of traditional public schools;
  • 23 percent of charter schools had more than 50 percent African American enrollment, compared with 9 percent of traditional public schools; and
  • 25 percent of charter schools had more than 50 percent Hispanic enrollment, compared with 16 percent of traditional public schools.

The number of charter schools and the number of students who attend them continues to increase. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools estimated that 300 new charter schools opened in the fall of 2017, meaning that more than 7,000 charter schools now serve about 3.2 million students To put this in the national context, NCES reports that charter schools serve approximately 7 percent of public school students in the nation, so it’s still a relatively small population compared to nearly 43 million students in public schools.

Charter schools employ teachers of color at higher rates than traditional public schools. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a study in June finding that charter schools have about 35 percent more African American teachers and African American charter students are 50 percent more likely to have an African American teacher.

There are documented wealth gaps between African American families and white families, and between Hispanic families and white families. For example, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average Hispanic family has about one-sixth as much wealth as the average white family. And the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland published economic notes this year declaring the wealth gap between African American families and white families did not change between 1962 and 2016. Specifically, in 2015 only 42 percent of African American families owned equity in their home, compared with 65 percent of white families.

In sum, two-thirds of charter school students are not white, and charter schools are concentrated in urban areas. The students charter schools serve are generally from lower-income families. At the same time, charter school students of color are much more likely to have teachers who look like them.

With this greater context, what can we say about charter schools and segregation?

The complex topic of segregation brings with it equally complex associations. For example, words like separate but equal, Brown v. Board, integration, bussing and white flight come to mind. White flight, as you may recall, describes how many white families responded after integration. They moved to the suburbs in droves creating an explosion of new school districts.

We can see evidence of white flight in a 1979 article from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin called, “’White Flight’ to the Suburbs: A Demographic Approach.” And in 2019 we see evidence of it again in Governing, Vox and The Hechinger Report  with a new phrase attached to it: “school secession.” That is when a new, smaller and more affluent district is birthed from an older, poorer and once larger one.

This is a more than 40-year trend that requires money and political capital. To build a new school district you need real estate, the ability to levy taxes as well as support from city or county officials and in some cases the state. In fact, it sounds a lot like using power to exclude certain students – the antithesis of what most charter schools have become which are open, inclusive public schools that serve mainly students of color who come from families that lack economic and political influence.

Saying that charter schools modestly increase segregation without drawing clear distinctions between “white flight” and the charter school movement misleads the public. After reading research like this, it would be too easy to incorrectly assume that charter schools generally contribute to “white flight” when it is generally African American and Hispanic families who are choosing to leave traditional public schools for public charter schools. To fault charter schools for this exodus is to blame them for creating new and better opportunities for families who need them the most. And rather than shaming and blaming families for making difficult educational decisions, we should be humble enough to ask them directly why they have chosen to move their children from one school to another. Perhaps we might learn more from families than we can from a complex statistical analysis.

About the author

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.