School Choice & Charters

Charter Schools: Choice, Diversity May Be At Odds

By Lynn Schnaiberg — May 10, 2000 17 min read

Nestled alongside the state’s tallest peak, Mount Graham, this rural community sits in a valley dominated by what locals call “the three Cs": cotton, cattle, and copper.

Four years ago, another “C” came to town—charter schools—and an interesting thing happened.

About 3,000 students are enrolled in the Safford school district, 60 percent of them Anglo and 40 percent Hispanic. The district is small enough that all of its students in a given grade attend the same school, no matter where they live in town.

About This Series

Part 1: April 26, 2000.“Redefining ‘Public’ Schools.” The rise of charter schools, voucher programs, and other new ways of providing public education.

Part 2:May 3, 2000.“Charters, Vouchers Earning Mixed Report Card.”
Are these innovations leading to better student achievement?
>Part 3:May 10, 2000. The color of choice: charter schools and race.
Part 4:May 17, 2000. Keeping track: holding charter and voucher programs accountable.
Part 5:May 24, 2000. How traditional public schools are reacting (or not) to the competition.
This series is supported in part by the Ford Foundation.

But when two charter schools opened here in 1996, they attracted sharply different student populations. The first-year enrollment at Triumphant Learning Center was about 95 percent Anglo; at the other school, Los Milagros Academy, it was roughly 75 percent Hispanic.

The proportions have evened out a little at both schools since then, especially at Los Milagros, but the perception that one school is for one group, and another school for the other, still lingers.

“The connotation is there that [Los Milagros] is primarily a Hispanic setting. That might be a misperception, but the connotation is there,” said Gretchen Bruce, a TLC parent. “And maybe the connotation is out there for Hispanics at this school, unfortunately.”

No one suggests that leaders at either school intentionally tried to limit their enrollments by race or ethnicity; to the contrary, the disparities here seem to be the natural result of a variety of other factors.

Still, some charter school observers say experiences like Safford’s illustrate the troubling demographic divides that can occur when parents are given the freedom to choose where their children go to school, and schools are given the flexibility to define what they will offer.

Such observers worry that charter schools and other forms of choice, such as voucher programs, will move public education further away from the ideal of the “common school,” in which children from all backgrounds come together to learn, by exacerbating the racial and class separation already rife in the current system.

“If charter schools are to reform the education system, they should provide greater equality of opportunity than the traditional school system,” said Frank Kemerer, the director of the Center for the Study of Education Reform at the University of North Texas.

Attracting Minorities

In the highly polarized debates over school choice and student diversity, experts disagree about whether—or to what degree—charter schools are contributing to racial isolation and what, if anything, should be done about it. But in some places, evidence suggests that such schools are indeed having that effect. Studies show that charter schools are generally not “creaming” well-off white students from traditional public schools, as some critics had predicted. The reverse scenario, in which the publicly financed but largely independent schools attract a disproportionate percentage of minority students, appears to be more common.

Many analysts say that should come as no surprise: Minority students on the whole haven’t fared well under the traditional education system, so it makes sense that they would seek alternatives. In addition, charter school legislation in many states encourages such schools to serve students at risk of academic failure, many of whom are likely to belong to minority groups.

And even if some charter schools’ enrollments aren’t as diverse as some people would like, school choice advocates argue, that was never their primary goal. Charter schools, they say, should be more concerned about improving the quality of education, being accountable for results, and offering true equity by allowing poor and middle-income parents the same opportunity as the wealthy to choose good schools.

Many choice advocates argue that critics are overstating their concerns about diversity to discredit the charter movement and protect the status quo.

“The thing we ought to care most about is whether or not children are being educated,” said Howard L. Fuller, the director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “To the extent that charter schools or any option other than the existing system help educate kids—albeit those kids will in some instances be in ‘racially isolated’ schools, but get a great education—I think democracy benefits.”

‘Subtle Signals’

While there’s no way to know all the reasons why parents choose a given school, researchers say many factors can play a role: who’s starting it, where it’s located, what its mission is, how it’s marketed, what it asks of parents and so on.

“I think all those things become very symbolic about who belongs there and who doesn’t,” said Amy Stuart Wells, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has been skeptical of the charter school movement. “Even the name or the way they write the mission sends out subtle signals about who really fits.”

Leaders of both Triumphant Learning Center and Los Milagros Academy say they want to serve all students; any “signals” parents have interpreted as barriers, they say, were not sent intentionally.

Indeed, the stated missions of the two schools have much in common. Both stress a college-preparatory curriculum, an individualized approach to education, multiage classrooms, and “moral values.”

But Richard Ortega, one of the few Hispanics ever elected to the Safford school board, says he’s not surprised the two charter schools in town have attracted different families. He points out that TLC’s organizers and governing board members are all non-Hispanic whites; the founders and board for Los Milagros are nearly all Hispanic.

“In a small town, it matters who’s starting the school. It has to do with a comfort level,” Mr. Ortega said.

Los Milagros is run under the auspices of Espiritu Community Development Corp., a Phoenix-based nonprofit group that also runs a charter school in a mostly poor Hispanic neighborhood in South Phoenix. Part of the impetus for starting a campus here was parents’ frustration with the low achievement and high dropout rates of Hispanic students in Safford-area schools, said Armando Ruiz, Espiritu’s chief executive officer and a former Democratic state legislator.

And, he said, “there was a very real sense that Mexicans didn’t have much of a say” in an area where Mormons hold many leadership positions.

“But our campus is open to everyone,” Mr. Ruiz said of the 115-student school, which now serves grades K-10 but plans to grow to include 12th grade. “We’re about empowering the whole community and encouraging all children to go to college, not just Hispanics.”

Robin Dutt, meanwhile, a certified teacher who has worked as a private tutor and substitute teacher, said she led the creation of TLC because she believed the local schools were too big and were uninterested in true parent involvement. She also thought her own children—now 5th and 8th graders at TLC—weren’t being sufficiently challenged. Ms. Dutt developed the 90-student, K-8 school with an adult educator in the area and a former teacher at a local Christian school that Ms. Dutt’s children once attended.

The two schools have other noteworthy differences. TLC founders rehabbed an old beauty school in a central part of town for their charter school; Los Milagros organizers found a community center on the outskirts of town in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood. TLC doesn’t provide school meals—a service that could be particularly important for poorer families, many of which here are Hispanic; Los Milagros offers meals and participates in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. TLC also doesn’t Milagros does. Finally, the schools differ in the degree to which they emphasize parental involvement—involvement that might be more challenging for families in which both parents have to work.

TLC’s academic calendar follows the custom of some local Christian schools by not holding classes on Fridays, in order to encourage more family time. In addition, the charter school’s registration form asks parents to describe “how your involvement and support will help ensure your child’s success.” It also says: “TLC was founded on the principle, ‘Parent involvement is the key to your child’s success.’ Each family is expected to volunteer 1-6 hours per month at the school. What services, time, and/or talents are you able to contribute?”

Ms. Dutt said that the school doesn’t require parents to volunteer, and that no parent has been turned away for not participating. But some researchers suggest such messages can, in effect, weed out some families.

Ann Mull, whose 1st grade son attends TLC, says she’s willing and able to volunteer at the school. “But I do know that [application] question put off a few parents,” she said.

Los Milagros, for its part, may have sent a message of its own through its name, which is Spanish for “the miracles.”

“I saw that as a school for Hispanic kids and maybe Catholic kids; I never really considered it as an option,” said Kristi Flatt, 30, the mother of two TLC students, echoing a perception voiced by numerous Anglo parents in a community where race and religion often go hand in hand.

Los Milagros organizers say they chose the name not for religious reasons, but because it was “a miracle” that they were able to recruit students, find a building, and hire teachers in a short time.

Word of Mouth

To help get the word out about the new schools, organizers from Los Milagros distributed fliers door to door and posted them on car windshields in the Wal-Mart parking lot. TLC officials did an interview on a popular radio show broadcast throughout the area.

But representatives of both schools say word of mouth has been their most effective advertising. That might help explain the two schools’ demographic divide, experts say.

“It makes a lot of difference how people find out about schools. Word-of-mouth friend, family, and neighbor networks are highly segregated by race and class,” said Gregory Weiher, a senior research associate at the University of Houston’s Center for Public Policy who is part of a state-sponsored team studying charter schools in Texas.

The Texas researchers concluded that first-come, first-served admissions policies, limited funding for marketing, designated attendance zones, and the fact that most parents found out about their charter schools from friends and relatives contributed to racial and ethnic “imbalance” of enrollments early on in Texas charter schools.

Both Los Milagros and TLC enrolled students on a first-come, first-served basis, but only TLC had more applicants than spots.

None of the parents from either school who were interviewed for this story said they made their choice because they were seeking a more homogeneous environment. But many said they learned about the schools from friends or relatives.

David Baca, the father of a kindergartner at Los Milagros, heard that a family friend, Victor Ornelas, whom he also knows through involvement in the local Roman Catholic church, was becoming the school’s director.

“This was automatically my first choice because of the people here. I know and trust them,” said Mr. Baca, 34. “And a lot of people my age who are active in the church have sent their kids here, too, so we all know each other. It’s a good environment.”

Leann Hancock heard about TLC from her sister-in-law, who enrolled her children the first year the school opened. One of Ms. Hancock’s neighbors serves on the school’s governing board.

“I respect their opinions and felt like, if they were willing to get involved, the school must be good,” said Ms. Hancock, who home-schooled her daughter before enrolling her at TLC.

Enrollment More Varied

Now, parent connections may actually be helping the schools diversify their enrollments.

Los Milagros is now 53 percent Hispanic and 45 percent non-Hispanic white. Carole Hampton, a grandmother of two students at Los Milagros, believes word of mouth has had a lot to do with its changing ethnic makeup.

“I think the non-Hispanic parents start talking about it and get the word out, and it encourages others to come,” she said.

While TLC is still mostly white, about 90 percent, Ms. Dutt expects the school to enroll more Hispanic students as they move off the hefty waiting list.

Parents here in Safford don’t seem too concerned about the racial and ethnic makeup at the two charter schools, a fact that would come as little surprise to proponents of school choice like Mr. Fuller of Marquette University.

“To parents, much of this is just esoteric debate,” explained Mr. Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent. “They’re looking at what’s happening to their children on a day-to-day basis, and they want a school that’s safe, that cares about their children, that teaches their children, and they don’t care if the school is integrated or not.”

Indeed, some charter schools seem to cater to a narrow niche. At the AGBU Alex & Marie Manoogian School in Southfield, Mich., students study the Armenian culture and language in addition to core academics. The suburban Detroit K-12 school, a former private school that converted to charter status in 1995, enrolls nearly 300 students, roughly 90 percent of whom are of Armenian descent. Similar demographics can be found in schools that highlight African-American, American Indian, and Hispanic cultures as part of their educational missions.

Truly ‘Public’?

As the law demands, such schools are open to students of all backgrounds. But as a practical matter, some critics say, they may hold little appeal to those outside the targeted groups. These critics question whether such charters are truly “public” schools.

Gary Orfield, a Harvard University desegregation expert, said such schools are “a big mistake” if they’re opened in communities with the potential for integration. He noted that poor, minority schools often draw less political and financial support than more affluent schools.

“If you concentrate kids in a minority school, you’re likely to have problems, especially if the kids are low-income,” Mr. Orfield argued. “That’s not likely to be productive educationally. Why we’d want to Balkanize society more than it already is, and actually pay for it, is a big question.”

But charter school supporters say such schools have sprung up to meet students’ and families’ needs and often provide minority communities with a sense of empowerment and a more culturally sensitive school environment. So long as the schools are open to all students and teach core academics and respect for other cultures, they should be embraced, supporters say.

“I wouldn’t assume the only people who will attend a school that focuses on a certain culture are people of that culture. It might attract others because it has only 200 students and the other schools have 1,300,” said Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota. He drew a parallel with non-Catholic students who have chosen to attend Catholic schools.

He said charter schools with cultural missions are no less “public” than many suburban school districts, which are generally open only to families who can afford to live there. “There’s the rhetoric of public education, and there’s the reality,” Mr. Nathan said. “And the reality is many public schools are not open to all kinds of kids.”

Devil in the Details

Most states, said Eric Hirsch, a senior policy analyst for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, have authorized charter schools primarily to give parents more educational choices and to help raise student achievement—not to create schools that are more or less racially integrated than existing school systems.

But clearly, the way a state’s charter school policies are crafted and carried out can hinder or encourage demographic diversity.

“The details of a choice program are really critical,” Mr. Nathan said.

Charter school laws in about a dozen states call for such schools to seek or achieve “racial balance” or diversity that reflects their community. But critics argue that those provisions are not always enforced. Other observers, noting that the current political and judicial climate does not favor race-based admissions policies, say it’s unclear how policymakers could mandate more integration in charter schools without running afoul of the courts.

Some laws or policies may affect diversity indirectly, by demanding, for instance, that charter schools target students at risk of academic failure, by limiting the geographical areas they can serve, or by not fully funding transportation.

Whether charter schools admit students on a first-come, first-served basis or through a lottery can also affect the nature of their enrollment, experts say. The federal government now requires charter schools receiving federal charter school aid to admit students through a lottery when the number of applicants exceeds seats. Many states and charter schools have followed suit.

One of the only direct tools charter schools have to encourage diversity is through broad marketing and student recruitment, said Eric Premack, a national charter school expert at the Institute for Education Reform, based at California State University-Sacramento. “My sense is most schools are bending over backward to do this,” he said.

But most states don’t specifically address how charter schools should go about it, said Mr. Hirsch of the NCSL, so the task generally falls to individual schools and their sponsors to work out.

And the short time span, multiple demands, and shoestring budgets many charter school organizers face in getting their schools up and running “don’t really lend themselves to being able to recruit broadly,” he said.

Some analysts and critics suggest that school choice is inherently at odds with diversity.

“The whole ideology of the movement suggests that like should go with like; charter schools serve kids with similar needs or parental desires,” said Carol Ascher, a critic of educational choice and a senior researcher at New York University. “So everything reinforces the idea that charters will not contribute to diversity.”

But supporters of the movement say that it’s possible to have both choice and diversity, and that giving parents a choice doesn’t mean they will automatically opt for homogeneous schools.

“There’s clear evidence around the country that when strong charter schools are developed in cities or by cities and suburbs, parents of diverse backgrounds want to attend,” Mr. Nathan said. “Well-designed” choice programs can support integration, he said.

Given enough resources and time, he said, charters have the potential to create schools that are more varied by breaking the tie between the segregated neighborhoods where students live and where they go to school. Providing transportation, he added, is critical. A federal report this year found that about a third of charter schools don’t offer their students transportation.

Nationally, many observers are waiting for definitive evidence that charter schools are producing superior academic results—that this new type of public school “works” and helps level the playing field for all students. But even assuming such clear-cut evidence emerges, the debate over charter schools and race seems likely to continue in the highly politicized arena of school choice. For some, separate will be unequal under any circumstances.

In Safford, meanwhile, leaders of Los Milagros Academy and Triumphant Learning Center say that they embrace diversity, but that it was never their chief goal.

“Our mission is not to desegregate society—it’s not,” said Mr. Ruiz, of Los Milagros. “We can’t undo 250 years of history just like that. Our mission is to create leaders through education.”

Ms. Dutt, TLC’s founder, said she never gave much thought to the issue. “My primary goal was to provide the best education,” she said. “If diversity were the most important goal, I would’ve approached it differently.

“And as far as those folks looking at demographics,” she said, “it seems all they see are numbers. But all I see are people.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2000 edition of Education Week as Charter Schools: Choice, Diversity May Be At Odds


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