When the charter school movement began 20 years ago, it was pitched to the public as a more flexible and autonomous alternative to traditional public schools. People believed, too, that charters would be less segregated because they could enroll students across district boundaries.
Today, charter schools are getting a big boost in federal funding from the administration of President Barack Obama. This year alone, the number of charters has grown by 9 percent, to more than 5,450 schools. The popularity of the movement and the desperation of parents who enter their children in lotteries for inner-city charters has been captured in Waiting for Superman, a new documentary film we reviewed last month. ("Mixed Report Card for 'Waiting for Superman'")
But are charters more integrated than other public schools?
To find out, Miller-McCune spoke with Erica Frankenberg, an assistant professor at Penn State University and the co-author of a national report on charter schools by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA; and Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University who recently led a national study on the makeup of the charter schools run by nonprofit and for-profit education management firms.
Miller-McCune: Erica, the Civil Rights Project compared the racial and ethnic makeup of 3,800 charter schools to that of 83,000 traditional public schools in the 2007-08 school year. Have charters lived up to their promise of diversity?
Erica Frankenberg: Our study finds that they have not lived up to that initial hopeful promise of integrating across boundary lines. In fact, we found that students of every race, but particularly black students, are much more likely to be enrolled in what we define as racially isolated minority schools. Those are charter schools that are 90 to 100 percent students of color.
M-M: In fact, your report states that almost a third of black students in charters end up in "apartheid schools" that are 0 to 1 percent white, substantially more segregated than traditional public schools in the same area. In some cities, you found, the percentage of black students in charters was four times as high as in other local public schools. Isn't this the kind of school segregation that the civil rights movement sought to abolish in the South decades ago?
EF: Exactly. That's a really important parallel for us to think about. Prior to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, there was complete racial segregation in 17 states in the South and border regions of the country. These were schools that may not have had any white students. Yet through a series of decisions put into action by district courts, and executive and legislative attention to the issue, there was a dramatic lessening of segregation in the public schools of the South. Until recently, black students in the South were the most integrated of any in the country. We were able to make remarkable strides in addressing really high levels of segregation, and I think that it might be possible to do that with charter schools.
M-M: Gary, you led a team of researchers from Arizona State University and the University of Colorado who looked at 968 charter schools run by private nonprofit or for-profit management companies. What did you learn?
Gary Miron: We came up with some of the same findings. We had a smaller sample of schools than the Civil Rights Project, although we also looked at children with special needs and children who were classified as English-language learners. We found that those children are very underrepresented in these schools, across the board.
The legislation in the 1990s never promised that charter schools would have various compositions of students by various demographic categories, but it did stress that they would be open to all students. There was an assumption that these schools would attract a diversity of students, and that's not what we're finding.
M-M: Are you opposed to the concept of charter schools?
GM: I liked the idea of charter schools that was proposed and legislated in the 1990s. But at that time, we were talking about schools that were going to be highly innovative, highly accountable and open to all students. The notion was that when charter schools created unique learning environments, parents would find schools that fit the learning needs of their students. The notion was that we were going to have school choice based on pedagogical innovation. What we find today is that the charter schools often don't differ in terms of the learning environment they offer. Many times, they're started by management companies that are setting up large networks of schools that are all similar, across a state or across the country. Therefore, parents choose based on race and social class, rather than on what best might match their students' learning needs.
M-M: Your study says that students in charters are being "pushed out to the extremes." What do you mean by that?
GM: Charter schools are accelerating re-segregation by race. Both studies found this. Not only do we see the white-flight schools, with some charter schools attracting high concentrations of white students, even though the surrounding communities may be more diverse; but we also see the black-flight schools, which are being set up in urban areas, drawing from a somewhat diverse population, and then having very high concentrations of black students. Interestingly, both studies also found that black-flight schools are more prevalent than white-flight schools. Of course, we have other types of white flight, going to private and parochial schools, which is not captured in these studies.
M-M: Erica, you found that charter schools are havens for white flight from public schools in the West and the South, the two most racially diverse regions in the country,
EF: Those are very large regions and those trends don't hold everywhere. But it is a particularly strong trend in the West where Latinos are a very large percentage of the public schools and they're actually under-enrolled in charters. In North Carolina, the countywide school districts have charter schools that are very heavily white. We have concerns about creating ways for students who want to avoid diverse schools to choose to attend these charter schools. We live in a still-stratified, unequal society, and if we have an institution that permits choice and we're not actively thinking about measures to ensure that decisions are being made for racial integration, we shouldn't be surprised at the trends that we have found.
M-M: Yet as Waiting for Superman shows, many black and Latino kids are desperate to enroll their children in charter schools. You and Gary both found that it is common for minority families to enroll students in charters that are more highly segregated than their already segregated local district schools. Why is that?
EF: We do see overall a higher percentage of students of color in charter schools nationwide. This isn't the case everywhere, though. Charter schools are different in every state. For example, North Carolina allows only 100 charter schools, and in Missouri, they can be established only in certain places. The legislation that guides charters can affect the enrollment. The West and the South, and particularly the West, has over-enrolled white students. In the Midwest, the central-city school districts are overwhelmingly minorities, and that pattern is reflected in the charter schools. So I think we need to think about not just why are people choosing charter schools, but what do the surrounding public schools in their areas look like. Often, they are pretty segregated.
The other thing I think is important to bring into this conversation is the issue of access for low-income students. One of the really concerning things we found was that 25 percent of charter schools nationwide may not offer subsidized lunch. If you're from a very low-income family, a charter might not be a choice that you're able to make. In some states, charter schools that don't offer or have no evidence of offering a subsidized lunch program have really high populations of white students.
M-M: Gary, you found that some for-profit education management organizations were enrolling 13 percent fewer minority students than their local districts. Overall, only a quarter of the charter schools run by these firms had a demographic makeup similar to that of the local school districts. What are the names of the companies with the most highly segregated charter schools?
GM: Some of the educational management orgs that target more of the low-income or minority families are the KIPP academies, which are nonprofit education management organizations. Charter School Administration Services, which operates out of Michigan, have about 95 percent African-American students in each one of their schools. So there are some management companies that really focus on ethnic populations of minority students. On the other hand, we also have some companies, like National Heritage Academies or Helicon Associates or K-12 Inc., that serve very few students of color, very few students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, and few or no students with special needs or English-language learners. So we can see across the education management organizations that some of them are really targeting those inner-city populations and others are targeting suburban audiences. Some offer limited transportation, so it's not as easy for low-income parents to enroll. Some states require transportation to be provided, and others have made it optional.
M-M: Erica, your research would suggest that it's not only the management firms that are sorting kids by class and race, but also school districts.
EF: In roughly half the states, most or all of the charter schools are run by a public school district. The rest are chartered by local educational agencies, so they're independent of any local school district. We did not analyze how the patterns of segregation differed based on the different kind of chartering status, but segregation seems to be pretty widespread, whether you're looking at it at the national, state or metropolitan level.
M-M:We reported recently on a study of charter schools in 16 states by Stanford University, which showed that only 17 percent were delivering better academic results, and 37 percent were delivering much worse results, compared to traditional local public schools. At the same time, this study and a recent study for the U.S. Department of Education showed that low-income students in charters were doing better than their peers in traditional local schools. So, why should we be concerned if the charters are more heavily segregated?
GM: The overwhelming body of evidence suggests that charter schools are not performing as well. The schools that are highlighted in the movie, Waiting for Superman, are quite an anomaly. Two state studies, one of my own that was done in Delaware and another that was done in North Carolina, show that students, once they are at these highly segregated minority schools, are losing ground with their peers. The hype and the myth are promoted by movies like Waiting for Superman, but those schools are not common.
EF: Charter schools are very different from public schools in that they can always send a student back to the public schools. There are issues of attrition that the public schools don't deal with in the same ways, so that's worth bearing in mind when we compare these outcomes.
Diverse schools have benefits for all students of all races who attend them. They have benefits that can't be obtained by going to the most segregated schools.
M-M: The administration of President Barack Obama is spending $256 million this year on charter schools, up from $145 million in 2000, and is requesting $310 million for charters next year. That's compared to $100 million this year for magnet schools, the lowest amount in a decade. Many magnets were founded to comply with court desegregation orders.
GM: If we look more closely at the policy agenda, we see these paradigm shifts over time. There was a pendulum shift in the '60s and '70s when we saw a lot of emphasis on equity, and we're shifting away from that. Right now, the Obama administration is part of the pendulum shifting towards an emphasis on quality, not equality, in education. It's unfortunately very much in line with the Bush administration.
In Europe, we see similar patterns in the policy arena, yet there are signs that the governments there are starting to step in to address some of these inequities. It's gotten so extreme that they need to use education as a tool to build social cohesion. It's interesting that Obama, an African American, is going to reign over a period of time in which we're accelerating the growth of charter schools, which is accelerating the re-segregation of our schools by race and class and ability and even language status.
M-M: Should the federal government more closely regulate charter schools?
GM: A number of states already have charter school laws that require them to match the demographics of the school districts. In Connecticut, for example, charter schools are supposed to recruit from all segments of the district, and they have to report on their efforts to recruit a diverse population of students. And yet, these laws aren't being enforced. So, obviously, we need to regulate these problems, but we also need to enforce what's already in place.
EF: In addition to enforcing the laws we already have on the books at the state level, the federal government certainly could reinstitute some guidance. There was some guidance about civil rights in charter schools in the Clinton administration that was archived during the Bush administration, and the Obama administration has done nothing since coming to office to try to clarify the responsibilities that charter schools have in complying with federal civil rights laws. Giving new guidance is important.
M-M: What about magnet schools?
EF: The Obama administration, for the first time in almost a decade, has requested more funding for the magnet school assistance program. That is one small, encouraging sign, though the request [$110 million for 2011] clearly is much lower than the charter school budget request. Magnet schools are schools of choice like charters are, but they have some civil rights guarantees built in.
If we really cared about school integration, we could try to structure charter schools in a way that would be more open to getting a broader pool of applicants, accepting a broader pool of students and recruiting a more diverse faculty. Among our traditional public schools, 80 percent of school segregation is segregation between district boundary lines. Charter schools, particularly those that are chartered as their own separate educational agency, have the advantage that public schools don't have, of being able to choose from across the metropolitan area.
Lastly, there's a lot of research that's being done on charter schools, but not much that's looking at these patterns of segregation. In our report, we raise a lot of questions about who it is we're serving. It's really important that we focus on the charter schools we have and what they're doing, before we throw a lot of money at expanding them.