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 Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards

Choice Without Equity:
 Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards

The charter school movement has been a major political success, but it has been a civil rights failure. As the country continues moving steadily toward greater segregation and inequality of education for students of color in schools with lower achievement and graduation rates, the rapid growth of charter schools has been expanding a sector that is even more segregated than the public schools. The Civil Rights Project has been issuing annual reports on the spread of segregation in public schools and its impact on educational opportunity for 14 years. We know that choice programs can either offer quality educational options with racially and economically diverse schooling to children who otherwise have few opportunities, or choice programs can actually increase stratification and inequality depending on how they are designed. The charter effort, which has largely ignored the segregation issue, has been justified by claims about superior educational performance, which simply are not sustained by the research. Though there are some remarkable and diverse charter schools, most are neither. The lessons of what is needed to make choice work have usually been ignored in charter school policy. Magnet schools are the striking example of and offer a great deal of experience in how to create educationally successful and integrated choice options.

Executive Summary

Seven years after the Civil Rights Project first documented extensive patterns of charter school segregation, the charter sector continues to stratify students by race, class and possibly language.  This study is released at a time of mounting federal pressure to expand charter schools, despite on-going and accumulating evidence of charter school segregation.

Our analysis of the 40 states, the District of Columbia, and several dozen metropolitan areas with large enrollments of charter school students reveals that charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation. While examples of truly diverse charter schools exist, our data show that these schools are not reflective of broader charter trends. 

Four major themes emerge from this analysis of federal data.  First, while charter schools are increasing in number and size, charter school enrollment presently accounts for only 2.5% of all public school students.  Despite federal pressure to increase charter schools--based on the notion that charter schools are superior to traditional public schools, in spite of no conclusive evidence in support of that claim--charter school enrollment remains concentrated in just five states.

Second, we show that charter schools, in many ways, have more extensive segregation than other public schools.  Charter schools attract a higher percentage of black students than traditional public schools, in part because they tend to be located in urban areas.  As a result, charter school enrollment patterns display high levels of minority segregation, trends that are particularly severe for black students.

While segregation for blacks among all public schools has been increasing for nearly two decades, black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings.  At the national level, seventy percent of black charter school students attend intensely segregated minority charter schools (which enroll 90-100% of students from under-represented minority backgrounds), or twice as many as the share of intensely segregated black students in traditional public schools. Some charter schools enrolled populations where 99% of the students were from under-represented minority backgrounds. Forty-three percent of black charter school students attended these extremely segregated minority schools, a percentage which was, by far, the highest of any other racial group, and nearly three times as high as black students in traditional public schools. 
Overall, nearly three out of four students in the typical black student’s charter school are also black.  This figure indicates extremely high levels of isolation, particularly given the fact that black students comprise less than one-third of charter students.  

Black students are not the only racial group experiencing higher segregation in charter schools.  Higher percentages of charter school students of every race attend predominantly minority schools (50-100% minority students) or racially isolated minority schools (90-100% minority students) than do their same-race peers in traditional public schools.  Half of Latino charter school students, for example, attended racially isolated minority schools.  

Third, charter school trends vary substantially across different regions of the country.  Latinos are under-enrolled in charter schools in some Western states where they comprise the largest share of students.  At the same time, a dozen states (including those with high concentrations of Latino students like Arizona and Texas) report that a majority of Latino charter students attend intensely segregated minority schools.  Patterns in the West and in a few areas in the South, the two most racially diverse regions of the country, also suggest that charters serve as havens for white flight from public schools.  Finally, in the industrial Midwest, more students enroll in charter schools compared to other regions, and midwestern charter programs display high concentrations of black students.  

Fourth, major gaps in multiple federal data sources make it difficult to answer basic, fundamental questions about the extent to which charter schools enroll and concentrate low- income students and English Language Learners (ELLs).  Charter schools receive public funding and therefore should be equally available to all students regardless of background.  Approximately one in four charter schools does not report data on low-income students.  Since eligibility for receiving free lunch is proof that families cannot afford to provide it, the lack of a free lunch program at school would impose a severe economic barrier to attending a charter school. There is a similar lack of information on ELLs. Federal data on charter schools in California, arguably the country's most significant gateway for immigrants, describe just seven ELL students attending its state charter programs. In general, state charter school legislation is less likely to contain requirements for enrolling ELL students than for racial balance or diversity standards.  The glaring lack of data on each of these traditionally underserved groups makes it difficult to assess charter schools as an educational reform, or monitor their compliance with basic civil rights regulations and state charter school legislation.

We concentrate on state and metropolitan charter trends and not district level patterns since many charter schools can—and do—draw students from multiple school districts. In Arizona, for example, students attending charter schools within a single district boundary line were actually drawn from 21 different school districts (Gifford, Ogle, & Solomon, 1998). Thus, a comparison of similarly functioning charter schools to only one nearby district would be misleading.  Even so, our findings of higher segregation in charter schools do not substantively differ from other analyses comparing charters to their surrounding district or nearest public school.

Decades of social science studies find important benefits associated with attending diverse schools, and, conversely, related educational harms in schools where poor and minority students are concentrated.  In the recent State of the Union address, the President recognized the persistent link between segregated neighborhoods and schools, saying “In this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than their potential.”4  Ironically, charter schools held an early promise of becoming more integrated than regular public schools because they were not constrained by racially isolating school district boundary lines.  This report shows instead that charter schools make up a separate, segregated sector of our already deeply stratified public school system.  

So, at the same time it continues to promote the growth of charter schools, the Obama administration should take immediate action to reduce the segregation in charter schools, working instead to achieve the integrative promise of charter schools.  The Education Department should update its now archived guidance on civil rights regulations for charter schools, and strengthen it by including provisions known to have been successful in other programs like magnet schools, which combine school choice with high-quality diverse student bodies.  New legislation is needed to ensure that we are collecting enough information about charter school students so that we can monitor student access and outcomes by race, class, and language ability.  As ESEA is reauthorized, it should be amended to include students’ socio-economic status as part of the annual evaluation of charter school enrollment.  At the same time, more should be done to strengthen and promote magnet schools as another successful type of school choice, and to emphasize the ability of magnet and charter schools to draw students across boundary lines.  States should also work to ensure that diversity considerations are part of the charter approval process, and exercise stronger oversight of existing charter schools.

Indeed, we all must work to build a more inclusive sector of schools, one that magnifies and strengthens the role of choice in fostering integration and equality in American education.


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