A survey of the limited research that has been done on the demographics of charter schools suggests that in some places, they are contributing to the racial and ethnic isolation of their students.
But how much, or how broadly, such findings hold up depends on whom you ask in the ideologically charged debate over school choice.
One challenge for researchers is that there’s no perfect way of comparing the enrollments of charter schools and traditional public schools, and no universally agreed upon definition of racial isolation.
Most studies to date have focused on comparing, in the aggregate, the share of minority students served in charter schools versus traditional public schools in a given state. The problem with this method is that in many states, charter schools are concentrated in urban areas that tend to have higher proportions of minority students than the state’s schools as a whole.
And aggregate statistics, whether at the state or district level, can mask the existence of individual schools that are virtually all- white or all-minority.
Another method is to compare charter schools with traditional public schools in their close vicinity. But that approach assumes that the charter and traditional schools draw their students from the same neighborhoods, an assumption that doesn’t always hold up.
A report released this year by the U.S. Department of Education compares charter enrollments with district figures. It found that 69 percent of the 927 charter schools that responded to the survey were not racially “distinct” from the districts in which they were located during the 1998-99 school year. If a school’s white enrollment varied from the district’s by more than 20 percent, it was deemed distinct. Two years earlier, 60 percent of charter schools could be described that way. But some researchers say the department’s standard can be misleading.
“It’s an awfully broad and forgiving measure,” said Gregory Weiher, a researcher at the University of Houston’s Center for Public Policy and a co-author of a state-sponsored, multiyear evaluation of Texas charter schools.
Mr. Weiher pointed out that the Girls and Boys Preparatory Academy in Houston would not be considered racially distinct from the city school district, even though the charter school is 95 percent black and the district is 34 percent black, 52 percent Hispanic, and 11 percent white.
Researchers at the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University, meanwhile, examined more than 500 charter schools from the 1997-98 school year using the federal study’s 20 percent standard. They found that nearly half of all charter schools whose enrollments were more than two-thirds minority were distinct from their districts’ makeups. And the largest numbers of charters studied had enrollments that were zero to 20 percent white, or 81 percent to 100 percent white.
“A closer analysis suggests that charter schools may be proliferating at both the low and the high end of the race/ethnicity and affluence/poverty continuums,” the researchers said in a report last year.
In Texas, researchers compared the state’s 89 charter schools operating last year with the districts where they were located and found that, on average, the charter schools deviated more from their districts’ demographics than the traditional public schools within the same districts did.
For example, the average traditional public school had an Anglo population about 9 percentage points above or below the Anglo population for its district. The average charter school showed a difference of about 17 percentage points—nearly twice as great.
For Hispanic students, the difference was more than twice as great; for African-Americans, it was about three times as great.
The researchers also found that Hispanics were overrepresented in charter schools designated for at-risk students (some of which, they said, include a vocational education focus), while Anglo students were overrepresented in “regular” charter schools.
Black students, they found, were roughly evenly divided between those two types.
A 1999 study by Arizona State University researcher Gene V. Glass that compared charter schools in his state with their traditional public school neighbors found similar results, but the study has come under heavy criticism from choice supporters.
A Look at Vouchers
The picture with another form of choice, private school vouchers, is no less charged and complex.
In both Milwaukee and Cleveland, which provide tuition vouchers to mostly poor families to help defray the cost of sending their children to private schools, researchers found that students were much less racially isolated in the participating private schools than they would have been in the two cities’ public school systems.
Researcher Jay P. Greene, for example, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York City, found that more than three-fifths of public school students in metropolitan Cleveland attended schools that were almost all-white or all-minority at the start of this school year, while half the students in the Cleveland voucher program were in comparably segregated schools.
But critics say neither Milwaukee nor Cleveland is a good indicator of what would happen if private school choice were made more widely available, since both programs are aimed at poor families, and both school systems are 80 percent minority.
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2000 edition of Education Week as Research on Charters and Integration Is Limited