Almost every hand is raised in Ms. Markeesha Zigbuo’s 2nd grade class at The Mastery School in Minneapolis, Minn. Twenty girls, all African-American and all dressed in matching purple plaid jumpers over white collared shirts, squirm in their seats, locking their elbows and stretching their torsos in an attempt to make themselves taller and their hands higher.
Behind them, taped to the wall, are the seven principles of Kwanzaa, an annual celebration of African heritage.
The Mastery School is one of three schools in Minneapolis’ Harvest Network of Schools, set up to serve almost exclusively low-income African-American and East African students—some in single-gender programs like this one. “African-American families have significant needs,” explained Eric Mahmoud, the founder of Harvest. “Many of our children are walking around with hundreds of years of history saying they can’t [make it].”
Mahmoud believes a curriculum steeped in African history and culture is crucial to closing academic achievement gaps between poor black students and their wealthier, white peers.
He represents a school of thought in one of the most persistent and nebulous debates of the charter sector: whether there is a harmful lack of diversity in the publicly funded but independently run schools of choice.
It’s a debate that includes disputes over whether charter schools—untied to neighborhood boundaries—should be leveraged to help integrate public schools racially and socioeconomically, whether poor students benefit more from diverse classrooms, and whether charters are indeed less integrated than their district school counterparts.
Harvest Network of Schools,
Minneapolis, Minn. Mission: “To unleash the potential of our scholars and transform the community by using education as a lever for change.” Student Stats:
82% Qualify for free or reduced-price lunch
A snapshot of state-level data shows significant variations in charter and noncharter enrollment by race and region.
Nationally, black students make up 28 percent of charter school enrollment, compared to only 15 percent of noncharter enrollment, according to an analysis by the Education Week Research Center of federal data from the 2012-13 school year.
White students make up 35 percent of total charter school enrollment and 50 percent of noncharter.
Meanwhile, the gap in enrollment share is smaller for Hispanic students than for their black and white peers. Hispanic students account for 29 and 25 percent of charter and noncharter enrollment, respectively.
Overall, more than 2.5 million students are enrolled in charter schools, or about 5 percent of the total public school population. But the degree to which charter schools skew toward a certain racial or ethnic group varies greatly from state-to-state.
Black students, for example, not only make up large majorities of the charter school population in Maryland, Louisiana, and Tennessee, but there’s also a significant gap in the enrollment of black students between charter and noncharter schools.
Those numbers don’t surprise Gerard Robinson, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. He’s also the former president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and a former education official for Florida and Virginia.
Robinson noted that several of the states with high proportions of black students in charters have either taken over local districts or schools because of poor performance, such as Maryland and New Jersey, or run statewide turnaround districts, such as Louisiana and Tennessee.
“Racially diverse schools ... are the most powerful path for nonwhite families to graduating high school and college and middle-income wages. There’s undisputed evidence of that.” —MYRON ORFIELD, Author of Minnesota charter law
“Bubbling under some of the numbers that we see is a context about the state having to intervene,” Robinson said.
But, he points out, it’s difficult to distinguish if the high proportion of black and Latino enrollment in certain states is a product of parents choosing to go to charter schools, or simply a function of where the charter schools have opened up.
“You may have [charter schools] who are targeting African-American parents in particular,” he said.
Openingis also a priority for a handful of well-endowed foundations, which have helped fuel sizeable growth among charter schools targeted to these populations.
Factors Driving Enrollment
Of course, there could be factors other than philanthropies driving enrollment, depending upon the families and the state.
“The pattern we’ve noticed is that Latino parents are enrolling their children in high-quality charter schools largely because they offer dual-language services,” said Brenda Calderon, an education policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza.
Black and Latino students make up nearly the same percentage of total charter school enrollment nationally. Yet even among states with some of the highest levels of Latino charter enrollment, such as California and Texas, there’s still relatively little difference, by percentage, between Latino charter and noncharter enrollment.
Madeline Mavrogordato, an assistant professor of educational administration at Michigan State University, said Latino families may not be flocking to charters in the same way black families are because they often hit language barriers. For example, state accountability data on schools may only be available in English.
“It can be difficult for someone to assemble the information they need,” said Mavrogordato. “They don’t search for information as much on the Internet or go talk to school officials.”
Serving a Population
Charter schools aimed at serving a specific racial or ethnic group are not unusual. Minnesota, the birthplace of the charter school idea 25 years ago this June, is home to several charters that use the extra freedoms granted to them through state law to open schools targeted to African-American, Native American, Somali, and Hmong students.
But while these schools may be popular among families, others worry that single-race or -ethnicity schools—and a general lack of diversity in charters—could ultimately harm students more than it may help them.
“Racially diverse schools are good,” said Myron Orfield, a law professor and the director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota. “They’re the most powerful path for nonwhite families to graduating high school and college and middle income wages. There’s undisputed evidence of that.”
This tension in Minnesota between what research says and what parents choose is in many ways a microcosm for the national debate over diversity in charter schools.
There are those within the charter community who bristle at characterizing schools that serve predominately one race of students as segregated—especially as the country’s district schools remain siloed by race and income. They are wary of any official effort to force charter schools to become more diverse.
In Minnesota, for example, an administrative law judge recently rejected the state education department’s plan to include charter schools in its integration rules.
“Segregation is when the state endorses a plan for forcing people of color into inferior circumstances,” said Chris Stewart, a school choice advocate and former Minneapolis school board member. “Black people choosing culturally affirming schools that have a lot of other black people in them, that’s not segregation.”
Coverage of issues related to creating opportunities for all American students and their families to choose a quality school is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2016 edition of Education Week as Role of Charters Facet of Debate About Diversity