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More on Charter School Segregation

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Guest blogger Alexander J. Hancock from 
Institute for Quality and Equity in Education at Loyola University shares his thoughts on the UCLA study that looks at re-segregation trends in charter schools.

(Cross-posted at the blog of the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education)

Over at ‘A Quality Education Blog’, Sara [Sands] had a thoughtful post yesterday on charter schools and segregation, which I’m going to piggy-back on today by writing about the January 2010 report published by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA on re-segregation trends in charter schools. Some time has passed since the report was first published, so you’ve got to ask if there’s really any reason to keep talking about it. My answer to that is a resounding “yes”. I think that all too often studies like this are published, they create a mini-firestorm, bloggers and reporters and policy wonks talk about them for a couple of weeks, and then they disappear. I don’t think that’s a good thing. Instead, I think it’s good to revisit controversial issues after the firestorm has died down a bit, so that we can examine the issues with a slightly clearer focus, and determine to what extent they apply to our work as we move forward.

At the center of this study is the finding that charter schools are more segregated than their traditional counterparts. This is notable because of the great political success of the charter school movement.  Between 2000 and 2008, charter school enrollment increased by 172%. In Louisiana, the increase was 556%, largely due to the post-Katrina charter school movement in New Orleans.

Enrollment patterns reveal two disconcerting trends. First, there’s the disproportionate representation of White and Black students in charter schools. In 2008, while White students made up 56% of traditional school students, they comprised only 39% of students in charter schools. Conversely, Black students were over-represented in charter schools, making up 16% of traditional school students and 32% of students in charter schools.

Second, in addition to disproportionate racial composition in the two types of schools, charters are more segregated than traditional schools. In 2008, 70% of Black charter school students attended schools that were 90-100% Black (which the report terms “intensely segregated” school settings”), fully twice the proportion of Black students in intensely segregated settings in traditional schools.  (The study also reports a similarly heightened level of economic segregation in charter schools.)

While these trends are seen at the national, state, and metro-area levels, we should be careful to remember that most charters are located in low-performing urban districts, which often have predominantly minority and high-poverty student populations. For example, by my count, 66% of all of Louisiana’s charter schools are located in the City of New Orleans, either under the RSD, the OPSB, or BESE. The student population under those three governing boards is over 90% Black (per the Cowen Institute’s 2010 “State of Public Education in New Orleans”). So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that, when looking at Louisiana, or even the New Orleans metro, charters serve disproportionately more Black students because they are disproportionately concentrated in a school district that serves a very high minority population. Even still, the number of minority students in intensely segregated schools is high enough that it should give us pause and make us ask if there’s a better way to do things.

I fear, however, that people will look at this data and think, “Well, charter schools are bad. We should get rid of them.” Or, just as bad, they’ll think that the people producing (and reproducing) the data are simply anti-charter and refuse to work with anyone who supports charters. That is not, I believe, a productive use of this data. The success of the chartering movement is due in part to the fact that, with their autonomy and short-term authorization, charter schools allow us to assess what works and what does not. When a charter is successful, its methods can supposedly be replicated. When one is unsuccessful, it can be closed (or, rather, denied reauthorization). The UCLA report mentions, by name, several charter schools that are highly proactive in ensuring a diverse, non-segregated environment. So perhaps, instead of engaging in a discussion of whether or not charter schools are successful and whether or not they should exist, we should instead look at which charter schools are successful and how they achieve that success. So in this case, we could look at charter schools that buck the trend — or districts that have charter schools whose demographics reflect the racial and socioeconomic composition of the traditional schools — and work to replicate that, in both charter and traditional public schools.

Perhaps that way we can build integrated school systems that serve all children equally, in New Orleans and across the country.

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