Classroom Technology

Racial Diversity of Online Charters Varies Widely By State, Study Finds

By Benjamin Herold — April 07, 2019 4 min read
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While full-time online charter schools nationally enroll a relatively high percentage of white students, there are significant variations in enrollment patterns by state, according to new research presented today at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, being held here.

In Colorado, for example, the enrollment of online charters is just 36 percent white, compared to 54 percent in brick-and-mortar traditional and charter schools throughout the state, according to University of Alabama assistant education professor Bryan Mann.

Online charters in Arizona, Nevada, and South Carolina, meanwhile, enroll significantly higher percentages of white students than do brick-and-mortar traditional and charter schools in their states.

“Most states have majority-white online charter school populations with less diversity than ... other schools. However, there are states where students experience more diverse environments in online charter schools,” Mann wrote in a paper presented at the conference, titled “Whiteness and Economic Advantage in Digital Schooling: Equity Considerations for K-12 Online Charter Schools.”

The findings add fresh nuance to previous examinations of online charter school enrollment. States’ varying demographics and histories with approving online charters mean that national findings often can’t be generalized from place to place, Mann argued.

All told, more than 200,000 students across more than two-dozen states attend online charters. Mann’s analysis included only those schools for which there was substantial enrollment and demographic data in the National Center for Education Statistics’ Common Core of Data database. That ended up being 220 online charters in 20 states during the 2015-16 school year.

First, he compared the demographic composition of the student bodies of those online charter schools with the demographic composition of brick-and-mortar schools in the same state. Then, he created an “exposure index” to track the extent to which students in online charters in each state were likely to be enrolled alongside students of the same and different races. Those figures were then compared to the exposure index scores of students in brick-and-mortar schools in each state.

As has been previously reported, Mann found that Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Oregon have the highest rates of student enrollment in online charters. In most of the states where online charters are present, enrollment in the schools is less than 1 percent of overall student enrollment.

Overall, Mann found, white students made up 66 percent of the students in online charters, compared to 49 percent of the students in brick-and-mortar schools in the 20 states he analyzed.

The variation was significant, however.

In Arizona, for example, online charters were 59 percent white, while brick-and-mortar schools in the state were 39 percent white.

But online charters nationally tended to lack the extreme racial segregation and isolation found in many brick-and-mortar schools, Mann found. The average black student in an online charter, for example, attended a school that was 64 percent white, 16 percent black, and 12 percent Hispanic. The average Hispanic student in an online charter attended a school that was 49 percent white, 10 percent black, and 31 percent Hispanic.

Again, there were significant variations across the country. In 13 states, white students in online charters attended schools that were more racially isolated than the brick-and-mortar schools in their state.

The findings also raise a set of larger questions, Mann argued.

Hypothetically, he said, online charters—which typically draw their enrollments statewide, and are not limited to serving students from specific communities that are often highly racially segregated—have the potential to be much more demographically diverse than other schools.

But from an equity standpoint, it’s unclear what the benefits of such racial diversity may be, Mann wrote.

For one thing, researchers have found that online charters as a group have an “overwhelmingly negative impact” on students’ academic performance, meaning that equal access to enrollment may not translate into subsequent opportunities.

In addition, he contended, the academic and social benefits that accrue to students who attend racially diverse schools may not occur in full-time online schools, where face-to-face and in-person interactions are far more limited than in brick-and-mortar schools.

Diversity for its own sake won’t necessarily lead to a better education for all students in this relatively new schooling environment, Mann concluded.

“Without examining the embedded norms and practices in online learning platforms, we cannot tell if increasing demographic diversity can achieve goals of equity,” he wrote.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.