A setback for diversity

Studies suggest that charter schools contribute to racial and socioeconomic segregation

Read the response to “A Setback for Diversity” here.

prodded by financial incentives offered by the Obama administration, Massachusetts and most other states are loosening restrictions on establishing charter schools. These schools, publicly funded and free from traditional oversight, are viewed by some as laboratories where educators can experiment with new ways of teaching students. Yet the track record of charters so far is mixed. Some elicit stronger student performance than others, and most are difficult to evaluate due to a lack of information on graduation and attrition rates. Glaring gaps in the data also make it very hard to understand whether and how charter schools are serving low-income students and English language learners.

In one area, though, research on charters is close to reaching consensus. A number of studies show that charter schools contribute to the already rampant racial and socioeconomic segregation in our nation’s public schools. In fact, our recent Civil Rights Project report finds that charter schools are more segregated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and metropolitan area enrolling a significant number of charter students.

Decades of research concludes that isolating students by race and/or poverty is profoundly associated with less opportunity, evidence conclusive enough to cause the Supreme Court to declare that public schools continue to have compelling interests in reducing racial isolation and promoting diversity. Students in segregated minority schools are more likely to face high rates of teacher turnover and less qualified teachers. Access to important learning resources and social networks linked to college and jobs is typically circumscribed in racially isolated schools. Segregated educational settings are also far more likely to be associated with high dropout rates, which limit future educational and occupational options.

Importantly, on the other side of the coin, students of all races — including whites — benefit from attending diverse schools. These benefits include reduced prejudice and stereotypes, improved cross-racial understanding, and increased comfort in working and living across racial lines. All of these factors improve students’ life opportunities after high school, and they are important traits for citizenship in a diverse country and for employment in our globally connected workplaces. Some might argue that diversity is less important than a high-quality school, but we believe one shouldn’t be sacrificed for the other.

Charter school enrollment continues to grow nationwide, and Massachusetts is representative of this trend, with a near doubling of its charter students from 2000-01 to 2007-08. In the latter year, the more than 25,000 students enrolled in 61 Massachusetts charter schools accounted for 2.7 percent of all public school students in the state, slightly higher than the corresponding percentage nationally.

Just over half of Massachusetts’s charter schools are located in cities, and approximately 40 percent are in suburban areas. Charter schools in the Boston metropolitan area account for more than half of the state’s charter students. At the same time, however, Boston metro area charter schools actually enroll a lower percentage of all public school students than the statewide figure, calling into question the notion that charters are disproportionately serving families leaving the Boston Public Schools. Nationally, the geographic skew of charter schools toward urban areas likely accounts for some, but not all, of the differences in the racial and poverty composition of the students enrolled in charters and regular public schools.

In most states, black students enroll in charter schools at higher rates than in other public schools, while the pattern is more mixed for Latino students. While segregation for black (and Latino) students has been increasing among traditional public schools for nearly two decades, black charter school students enroll in 90-100 percent minority schools at twice the rate of traditional public school black students. Further, more than two-fifths of black charter school students nationally are in 99-100 percent minority charter schools. Although less extreme than for black students, charter students of every race/ethnicity are enrolled at higher rates in segregated minority schools.

White students overall are under-enrolled in charter schools, but in some of the most diverse regions of the country — the West and, to a lesser extent, the South — whites over-enroll in charter schools.

In Massachusetts, both black and Latino students comprise a considerably higher share of the charter school enrollment (combined, the two groups account for half of all charter students) than they do among the traditional public schools (where together blacks and Latinos comprise just over one in four students).

More than half of Massachusetts’s black charter school students are in 90-100 percent minority schools. In metropolitan Boston, almost one in three of all charter students goes to schools with high minority student concentration. Further, the typical black or Latino student in Massachusetts’s charter schools attends a school where only one in five students are white, on average. By contrast, there are approximately twice as many white students in schools of the typical black or Latino student who is enrolled in a traditional public school.

Charter school students experience more severe minority segregation than their peers in other public schools.These numbers illuminate a basic conclusion: Charter school students in the country and in Massachusetts, particularly black students, experience more severe minority segregation than their peers in other public schools.

Given the benefits of racially diverse schools for students of all races, it is also important to consider concentration of white students. Nationally, and in Massachusetts, white student segregation is lower in charter schools than in traditional public schools, where whites are exposed to the lowest shares of other-race students. Yet almost one in four white charter students in Massachusetts attend a school where at least 90 percent of the students are also white. White isolation in charter schools was almost as high as among traditional public school students.

Nationally, it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which charter schools are enrolling students from low-income and non-native English speaking backgrounds, due to a large percentage of charter schools reporting missing values for these groups of students. But among charter schools that we do have data for, higher percentages of students attended schools of concentrated poverty.

Unlike many other states, the vast majority of Massachusetts charter schools do report low-income data, and our analysis finds that they enroll low-income students to a higher extent than do regular public schools. There is some uncertainty regarding the number of low-income students in charter schools, but our estimates suggest that 44 percent to 45 percent of charter students in Massachusetts are low-income, while just 29 percent of traditional public school students are similarly economically disadvantaged. The one charter school in Massachusetts not reporting low-income data (e.g., providing no evidence that it offers subsidized lunch) is a school where more than 90 percent of students are white.

It is clear that charter schools are here to stay, and as such, focusing on how to combine school choice with diversity should be a priority as charter schools grow in Massachusetts and elsewhere. Policy should provide incentives for charter schools to recruit, admit, and retain diverse groups of students — as has traditionally been the case with federal magnet school policy.

In addition to providing diversity incentives, other features of Massachusetts’s charter school legislation should be amended to guarantee that all students have access to these publicly funded schools. This means providing transportation to all students (including students who live in a district other than where the charter school is located), restricting admissions prerequisites, offering programs like subsidized lunch and instruction for English language learners and students with disabilities, and conducting outreach to all groups in the community.

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Without these guidelines, states like Massachusetts may end up funding an expansion of schools that only exacerbate growing educational segregation. Massachusetts was the birthplace of public education in the United States; it can again lead the way in ensuring access to high-quality, integrated schools for all children.

Erica Frankenberg and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley are researchers at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and co-authors of Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards, available at www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu.