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Do Charter Schools Worsen Segregation?

They largely serve minority students, but supporters say that’s not a problem -- it’s actually the point.

charter schools segregation
(David Kidd)
Charter schools may be good at many things. Integrating children of different races is not one of them.

That was the conclusion of a recent study by the Associated Press, which found that charters are more segregated than traditional public schools. During the 2014-2015 school year, the AP reported, more than 1 out of 7 charters had an enrollment that was at least 99 percent minority.

The finding has received plenty of pushback from charter proponents. For one thing, they argue, the study was making an apples-to-zebras comparison: A snapshot of charters nationwide doesn’t take into account their locations, which more often than not are in highly segregated central cities. “It’s like saying that urban public schools are more racially isolated than public schools nationwide,” says Michael Petrilli, president of the pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “Of course they are -- urban neighborhoods are the most segregated in the country. And in most states, most charters are urban.”

Petrilli says that unlike many public schools prior to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, segregated charters are not the result of deliberate public decision. Charters may be racially isolated -- plenty of academic studies, not just the AP study, have shown this to be the case -- but supporters don’t see that as much of a problem. “Most charter schools intentionally locate in inner-city neighborhoods that are highly minority and are designed to appeal to racial minority parents,” says Patrick Wolf, an education professor at the University of Arkansas. “In a sense, it would be scandalous if charter schools weren’t overwhelmingly serving racial minority children, because that is what they are designed to do.”

Charters are poorly integrated not only because of housing patterns or public policy, but because of parent preference. When they have a choice, parents tend to pick schools where children look like their own. Not all charters are above making at least implicit appeals to parents on these grounds. “What is clear is when you choose a charter, you’re getting a certain demographic as your child’s peers,” says Roslyn Mickelson, a University of North Carolina, Charlotte sociologist. “For some people, that’s one of the attractions.”

When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools sought to implement a plan last year to address racial isolation, many parents objected, and some local officials, primarily from white suburbs, threatened to open competing charters if the plan went through. If you force integration, they warned, we’ll take our business elsewhere. Charters were being used not to promote educational competition, but as a cudgel to pressure the school board not to pursue racial integration as a goal. 

In general, charters are not opened with the intention of increasing racial isolation, says Nat Malkus, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They are attempting to “offer high-quality alternatives” to schools sponsored by the state. Malkus’ argument is that racial isolation in charter schools -- and his own research has shown that charters are not only more segregated than public schools as a whole, but also more segregated than the public schools closest to them -- is a “byproduct” of their mission, not the purpose. “They entered into a system where segregation was already there,” he says. “They are purposefully going in where other racially isolated schools have failed kids for a long time.”

But if charter schools didn’t cause segregation, they certainly aren’t ameliorating it. Maybe that’s not their purpose. Perhaps it’s even too much to ask of them. Most charters are small actors that are part of a much larger educational ecosystem. Still, if that system as a whole is ever going to be integrated, an increasingly fragmented educational landscape won’t make the task any easier. 

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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