Charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional schools in virtually every state and large city in the country, according to a new report released by the University of California at Los Angeles. In the Midwest, more than half of charter students in 2007-2008 were black, in large part because charters are most often located in urban settings, researchers at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found.
In Minnesota, the report [PDF] found, much of this segregation can be attributed to the fact that many urban charters are targeted at students of a single race or ethnicity. By contrast, in the western United States, where traditional schools are typically more diverse, charters “are havens for white re-segregation from public schools,” researchers reported.
The report comes at a time when public attention is focused on the Obama administration’s first marquee education initiative, the controversial Race to the Top program. Forty states have applied for the federal grants, which are intended to recognize efforts at innovation. Among other things, the program includes financial incentives to expanding the number of charter schools.
“The states are financially desperate and will do almost anything to keep from firing teachers in the next couple of years,” UCLA Professor and Civil Rights Project Co-Director Gary Orfield told Minnpost. “We think [the Obama administration] are taking advantage of that desperation.”
Charters do not have to provide much of the programming traditional public schools are required to offer, such as services to English-language learners. This results in an unequal playing field. “We’re not asking that charters be shut, we’re not asking that charters not be expanded,” he said. “We’re asking that they be held to the same civil rights requirements.”
More and more charter schools
The publicly funded, privately operated schools have proliferated in Minnesota since their creation here in 1991, in large part because many inner-city schools have failed minority and low-income families. In the last decade, for example, half of all children living on Minneapolis’ predominantly African-American north side have opted out of the city’s public schools in favor of charters and parochial and suburban schools.
Between 2000 and 2008, charter school enrollment has more than doubled to 1.2 million nationwide.
Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, said the study’s premise was miscast. “Segregation by definition is a state action,” he said. “Parents choosing the school they want for their kids is not segregation.”
Minnesota law says charter schools cannot discriminate in terms of who they admit. But because many of the state’s charters tailor their curriculum to a particular race or culture, they tend to draw students of a single race. If those children attended traditional public schools they would be more likely to learn alongside children of other races, the study found.
“In Minnesota, for example, Latino students comprise eight percent of charter school students,” researchers reported. “But the typical Latino charter student attends a school where nearly half of students are Latino, indicating much higher than expected shares of students of their own race — and considerably higher isolation than other Latino public school students in Minnesota experience.”
The study drew on research released in 2008 by Orfield’s brother, Myron Orfield, the executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty and a longtime critic of the charter movement, and on a 1999 federal report that found that charters in Minnesota and five other states served higher percentages of students of color than traditional public schools in those states.
“In the last few decades, some states have adopted educational funding structures that allocate more money to educate students seen as being more difficult to educate, so that schools can provide equal educational opportunity for all students,” the UCLA report noted. “These reforms may have an unintended consequence for charter schools.
“Minnesota’s funding formula provides incentives for charter schools to attract urban students because of the higher reimbursement for educating such students,” the report continued. “And, as seen above, more than 60 percent of Minnesota’s charter schools are located in cities.”
Hotly debated topic
Charter performance is one of the most hotly debated issues in education policy today. Critics, including both Orfields, contend that overall the schools do not perform better than traditional schools. Proponents counter that charters provide families with badly needed alternatives to failing mainline schools and that many post excellent test results.
“The issue that seems to be the tension here is between the two basic principles that exist in public education,” said the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools’ Piccolo. “One is parental choice and one is the integration of people in society. The question is how do you balance those values?
“Parents choose schools to get their kids ahead,” he added. “Segregation was a way of holding people down.”
A second study [PDF] released earlier this week found that charters operated by so-called education management organizations — private corporations — segregate by race, income, disability, and language.
“The student population is pushed out to the extremes,” researchers at Western Michigan University and the University of Colorado at Boulder concluded. “Most charter schools were divided into either very segregative high-income schools or very segregative low-income schools.”
Beth Hawkins writes about education and other topics.