Charter schools are officially the new “it” in education reform. For President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and a score of elected officials across the country, “more charter schools” is the ubiquitous answer to what ails schools enrolling large shares of disadvantaged children of color.
In late June, Louisiana lifted its cap on the number of charter schools allowed under state law. Last month, Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts filed legislation that would do the same in his state. State officials are open about their hopes that lifting such caps will improve their chances of getting a share of the $4.35 billion in “Race to the Top” funding made available under the federal stimulus law.
Secretary Duncan in fact has urged states to lift their caps on charters, saying they would be at a disadvantage in receiving stimulus money if they didn’t. Reassuringly, he has balanced in his statements the benefit of autonomy and the need for oversight of the publicly funded but largely independent schools—a degree of reason often absent from the rhetoric of many charter advocates.
“This administration is not looking to open unregulated and unaccountable schools,” Duncan said recently. “We want real autonomy for charters combined with a rigorous authorization process and high performance standards.”
Given what’s known about charters, the secretary’s call for “rigorous authorization” is welcome. But what’s needed goes further than this. We should be embracing a brand-new vision for charters, one that emerges from what we actually know works for disadvantaged kids. Charters, considered differently and regulated well, could become tools to reverse the deepening trend of racial segregation and the widespread racial and economic inequalities that such isolation engenders.
A review of research measuring the promise of charter schools against what actually happens to children in real classrooms strongly suggests that it is unrealistic to expect that charter schools, alone, will reverse the vast and growing educational inequalities in the United States. In fact, there is no solid evidence that these schools—just by virtue of being charters—do any better for students than traditional public schools. As a rigorous and, unfortunately, widely misrepresented 2009 Harvard/MIT study on Boston showed, some charters do better than the city’s regular public schools. Some do not. This is a common finding. But another finding—that in some places, charters generally do worse than their traditional counterparts—is also commonly recorded. A recent Minnesota study, for example, showed that students in charters either did less well than similar students in public schools or the same as those students. A report released in June by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes featured similar findings.
There are, indeed, some moderately encouraging results about the success of some charters. But there is simply no larger research consensus about the educational benefits of charters. What is clear, however, is that, unchecked, charter schools tend to worsen already high levels of racial and economic segregation. And on the implications of this finding, the research consensus is also clear: Racial and economic segregation in schools tends to foster and exacerbate inequality over the short and long terms.
'It is unrealistic to expect that charter schools, alone, will reverse the vast and growing educational inequalities in the United States.'
It need not be this way. If properly designed and regulated, charter schools could be refashioned so that they would increase racial and economic diversity. Research indicates strongly that racial and economic diversity in schools actually does tend to enhance the educational experience and outcomes for all groups. In fact, the research on the benefits of racial and economic diversity in schools is far stronger than studies advocates often use to justify the creation of more charter schools. Understanding this, many educators and elected leaders—from Connecticut to Minneapolis to Omaha, Neb.—are exploring and using regional remedies to segregation and inequality.
Employing a new, egalitarian, and thoroughly democratic vision for charter schools would provide high-quality education in settings that approximate the larger, increasingly diverse society our students must join as adults. Government incentives to create charters that enroll students from several racially and economically distinct school districts—for example, one city and several suburbs—could result in diverse schools that, as research suggests, are better equipped to intervene and counteract the inequalities in the larger society. Why not take what we have learned from the well-functioning charter schools that exist now and attempt to replicate them in desegregated settings we know are better for students than racially segregated environments?
There is reason to believe such schools would be popular among families. In a recent poll sponsored by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 60 percent of those surveyed said that “integrated” schools are better for students. (Only 7 percent said “integration” made schools worse.) In Connecticut, the names of thousands of families sit on waiting lists for racially diverse regional magnet schools. Thousands of families in Massachusetts are on waiting lists for a voluntary program through which students from cities attend suburban schools.
The achievement of racial and economic diversity should be high on the public education agenda. Our nation is so rich in racial, cultural, and linguistic diversity, yet our communities and public schools remain highly segregated by race, culture, and class. This is a recipe for poorly prepared citizens and a fragmented society. We can do better. Charter schools, retrofitted for diversity and democracy, could become one of what should be many surer, more promising paths toward innovation, success, and closing the educational opportunity gap.