Education Funding

Diversity in Charter Schools: Another Look at the Data and the Debate

By Arianna Prothero — December 04, 2017 4 min read
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Charter schools represent some of the most racially segregated schools in the U.S., according to an analysis by the Associated Press released over the weekend, reviving a debate that has been happening both inside and outside the charter sector for some time.

It found that while only 4 percent of traditional public schools have student bodies that are 99 percent minority, 17 percent of charter schools are 99 percent minority.

Of the 6,747 charter schools in the country, more than 1,000 had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent, according to data from the 2014-15 school year.

This matters, the AP writes, because schools with high concentrations of minority students have fewer resources, less experienced teachers, and worse academic achievement.

Predictably, the AP story has caused an uproar among charter school supporters.

Howard Fuller is a prominent school choice advocate. He was the superintendent of Milwaukee’s school system when the Wisconsin created the first modern-day voucher program, and he is a founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Joe Nathan helped write the nation’s first charter school law in Minnesota, a state where several charters schools are targeted to specific racial and ethnic groups—such as African-American, Native American, Somali, and Hmong families.

In some ways, charter schools are perfectly poised to buck the trend of increasingly segregated public schools over the last two decades. Charter schools, untethered from neighborhood boundaries, can enroll students from near and far.

Instead though, charter schools are contributing to that growing segregation, writes the AP—along with housing trends and the lapse of court-ordered desegregation plans.

Many charter schools open up in urban areas with the specific intent to serve low-income minority students. This is an effort driven in no small part by some of the most influential philanthropists in education, who see charter schools as a way to create better schools for disadvantaged kids. Their investments have greatly shaped the charter sector we have today, as I reported on the 25th anniversary of the nation’s first charter school law.

State policy may also play a role. A 2016 analysis of state-level data by the Education Week Research Center found that several states with high proportions of black students in charter schools were also states that used charter schools to turn around low-performing district schools.

Some charter schools go a step further—such as the Harvest Network of Schools in Minneapolis, which believes a curriculum steeped in African history and culture is crucial to closing achievement gaps between poor black students and their wealthier, white peers. It serves predominately African-American and East African students.

Even KIPP, the largest network of charter schools in the country, has recently opened a charter school in Nashville whose mission explicitly embraces black empowerment.

Roadblocks to Diversity

But there’s research that racially mixed schools do a lot for closing achievement gaps, as Myron Orfield, a law professor and the director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota told me last year.

“Racially diverse schools are good,” he said. “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.”

And there’s a growing movement in the charter sector to leverage the freedoms charter schools are given to enroll more diverse student bodies (This is something even one of the aforementioned philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, has started investing in).

But there are still plenty of roadblocks for creating diverse charter schools.

The most ironic issue facing diverse-by-design charter schools is that the idea is hugely popular with white families, and schools can struggle to balance their enrollment in the face of that demand.

That was the case for a charter school I profiled in gentrifying area of St. Louis, called City Garden Montessori School, when writing about this issue in 2016.

Even with targeted outreach to minority families, diverse charter schools can be overwhelmed by white families. And many state laws either explicitly ban or are unclear on whether it’s legal for charter schools to give certain racial groups priority in their enrollment process to cultivate and maintain a diverse student body.

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Photo: Harvest kindergartners, from left, Myra Marshall, E’Miya Carter, Aubrey Anderson, Chrishonna Crittendon, Royalty Graves, and JaNay Ross, head to lunch. —Ackerman + Gruber for Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.