School Choice & Charters

To Create More Diverse Charter Schools, Walton Foundation Kicks In $2 Million

By Arianna Prothero — September 14, 2017 3 min read
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One of the most influential foundations in the charter school sector has announced that it will commit $2.2 million over the next two years to create economically and racially diverse charter schools in New York City.

The Walton Family Foundation has already given hundreds of millions to expand the charter school sector and last year committed to spend another $1 billion over the next five years.

The foundation will be distributing the money via grants to people launching new schools aimed at recruiting and serving more mixed-income and racially diverse student bodies. Although the foundation’s definition of what makes a school diverse will be somewhat flexible, it’s looking for schools where no one race or socioeconomic group makes up the majority of the student population. The reason: some research shows that students who attend mixed-income schools perform better academically, the foundation said in a statement. They have higher test scores and are more likely to go on to college after high school.

(The Walton Family Foundation provides grant support for Education Week‘s coverage of school choice and parent-empowerment issues. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.)

Increasing Charter School Diversity: The Debate and the Conundrum

While America’s public schools are becoming more segregated, charter schools would seem well suited to buck that trend: Untethered from neighborhood boundaries, they can draw students from across a city.

But that’s often not the case, and there’s frenzied debate over whether charter schools are more racially and socioeconomically segregated than district schools and making matters worse.

A 2016 Education Week analysis of state data and an American Enterprise Institute analysis of district data found that the racial makeup of charter schools varies greatly from state to state.

Meanwhile, a 2016 study by The Century Foundation, identified a handful of charter schools in the country that have policies explicitly designed to foster diversity within their schools. Balancing enrollment is often a struggle for charters that intentionally set out to strike race and income balances, especially in fast-gentrifying cities. (Like most traditional district schools, charters are not allowed to pick and choose their students.)

These diverse-by-design charter schools can become victims of their own success. In a story I reported last year on this issue, I spoke with the founder of a school in rapidly changing neighborhood in St. Louis. Despite the school’s best efforts, it struggled to maintain its mixed student body. White and affluent families flocked to the school as its reputation as an intentionally diverse and high-performing school spread.

How Do You Make Charter Schools More Diverse?

There is one mechanism through which charter schools can give certain groups of students—say those from low-income families or those learning English—a better chance of getting into a school. It’s called a weighted lottery.

When there’s more demand for spots in a school than what’s available, charters use a blind lottery to pick which students get admitted. A weighted lottery uses an algorithm to increase the odds of a certain type of student getting in. It’s basically a high-tech way of putting a student’s name into the hat twice.

But this policy hasn’t gained much traction because many state laws are unclear on whether it’s legal for schools to use weighted lotteries. The exception is Maryland, where state officials have proposed providing training for charter schools to use weighted lotteries as part of a plan on how it will implement new requirements in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

More Research on Diverse Charter Schools to Come

As is the Walton Foundation’s modus operandi, it will also be funding research to test how well these intentionally-diverse schools perform and how they do it.

This is the most recent in a string of investments by the foundation to help launch and sustain diverse charter schools. As part of this effort, it’s given money to NewSchools Venture Fund, 4.0 Schools, the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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Photo: Students at City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis work on lessons last month. The charter school is looking for ways to maintain racial and socioeconomic balance in its student body as the school’s reputation grows and demographics shift in the neighborhoods it draws students from. —Sid Hastings for Education Week

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