Skip to main content

Charter Schools and Equal Opportunity

Charter schools don't foster segregation, argues the former CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, but they do reflect the environments where they toil to create equal opportunity.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Remember Norman Rockwell's stark painting of the little African-American girl being escorted into a New Orleans schoolhouse by two deputy U.S. marshals? Today that little girl, Ruby Bridges, is working to open a public charter school in that same school building, which will house a civil rights museum as well.

Wouldn't it be strange for a civil rights figure like Bridges to join a movement that was "accelerating re-segregation by race," as charter schools were characterized in a recent article? Yet that's what some critics would have us believe, though more than a million black and Latino parents have chosen charters as a way of opening doors for their own children.

Charters are a new kind of public school, publicly funded and accountable to public authorities, but more free to create their own programs, hire a mission-driven staff and fit the school budget and calendar to the needs of their students rather than the mandates of a citywide contract. They have been much in the news over the past couple of years, in large part because in President Barack Obama they have a solid champion.

Predictably, they've also come under attack from those who hold old systems and old solutions sacrosanct, including the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, whose admirable commitment to equal opportunity is accompanied by a grating insistence that there is only one right way to get there. CRP seems to see charter schools as a particular menace: They create new educational opportunities in inner-city neighborhoods and may therefore undercut the salience of traditional remedies, ranging from busing to magnet schools, that depend on physically moving white and minority students across municipal boundaries until an acceptable mix is reached.

Have these remedies worked? The CRP itself admits that many big-city systems are more racially concentrated than 30 years ago. But far more important than the demographics are the educational outcomes themselves -- and on that score, the news is grim. A recent report by the Council of Great City Schools called the educational, social and employment plight of black males a "national catastrophe," noting that just 8 percent of black male eighth-graders in large cities performed at or above the proficient level in reading, compared with 33 percent of white males.

No one has a stronger stake in fixing this crisis than inner-city parents themselves. And they seem less interested in racial gerrymandering than in finding schools that produce real academic attainment in a safe and welcoming environment. That's why they are turning to charter schools in numbers far higher than the schools can accommodate.

Not every charter school succeeds — but they are providing real opportunity for students in some of our toughest areas.

North Lawndale College Prep Charter sits in a gang-infested area of West Side Chicago, and draws most of its students, 98 percent of whom are African-American, from the neighborhood. It has the highest college-going rate of any non-selective school in Chicago. North Star Academy, one of several high-performing charter schools in Newark, has the highest four-year college attendance rate of any public high school in New Jersey.

These are not isolated examples; there is a growing research consensus that urban charter schools have a particular power to move their students toward academic success. As the author of a recent federally funded study put it, "Well-designed studies that have focused on charter schools located in large urban areas and serving disadvantaged students have found positive impacts on student achievement." This is one reason charter schools are enrolling more than 20 percent of all public school students in 16 communities around the country, including major cities like Detroit, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

Against this backdrop, the points made by two researchers interviewed in the recent article require closer scrutiny. Erica Frankenberg's study for the CRP claims that charters are increasing racial segregation because kids moving to them from district schools are entering more racially concentrated environments. But the analysis has a fatal flaw: It compares the average demographics of charter schools to those of all public schools in broad metropolitan areas, ignoring that fact that charters are mostly located in inner cities — where the nearby traditional schools have roughly the same racial makeup.

A group of researchers from the University of Arkansas reviewed her findings. In one case, they noted, the CRP compares charters in center-city D.C. to an average of public schools in an area that includes Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia — an absurd apples-to-oranges comparison.

They also cite a 2009 RAND study looking at five cities included in the CRP report. Using student level data, RAND said that student transfers from traditional to charter schools have "surprisingly little effect on racial distributions across the sites."

The other interviewee, Gary Miron of Western Michigan University, took charters to task for enrolling too few students with disabilities and English-language learners. It should be noted, however, that he was citing data from his own study of schools managed by contracted management organizations, which account for less than one-quarter of all public charter schools. The broader picture is different, and far more complex than he let on.

Nationally, charters are pretty close to enrolling the same percentage of special education students (11.9 percent) as regular public schools (12.4 percent), according to the most recent federal data. Charters actually enroll more "English language learners" (16.5 percent) than traditional public schools (11.2 percent). Local disparities are sometimes explained by simply looking more closely at the data. In New York City, for example, the teachers' union alleged that charters were under-enrolling special education students, but a grade-by-grade comparison showed that charters actually enroll significantly more students with disabilities in the upper grades — suggesting that they persist toward graduation in charters rather than dropping out.

Charter schools are schools of choice. Despite their best efforts to reach out to families where English is not the first language, it's not hard to imagine that those parents might feel more comfortable putting their child in the "regular" school. That's why charters in Boston have banded together to improve recruitment efforts in the Hispanic community, and why New York charters have fought to change state law so English language learners could qualify for the admissions preference permitted for "at-risk" students.

I know it's to be expected that researchers and analysts will quibble over data. What's distressing in this case is the CRP's apparent bias against charter schools and more broadly, against any public school of choice. To see this clearly, you need look no further than this description of the origins of the school-choice movement in one of their reports: "School choice is a longstanding concept with important early historical roots in the days of resistance to southern desegregation." This is not just tendentious polemics, it's also bad history. As early as 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court said that "children are not the mere creature of the state" and that parents had a right to choose something other than what the local school district offered.

Black and Hispanic parents are exercising their rights by choosing public charter schools in growing numbers — and they're making a sound decision.