For more than half a century since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, our society has believed we value policies that support racially integrated public schools. In the past two decades, however, the rapid growth of the publicly funded but privately managed charter school sector has promoted racial segregation. Reports released this month from Connecticut and North Carolina document that when parents choose schools in the charter marketplace, they tend to segregate their children in schools dominated by large majorities of children of their own race.
Gary Orfield and Jongyeon Ee, of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, describe Connecticut School Integration that has been accomplished in the public schools and intentionally diverse magnet schools that were the result of remedies in Sheff v. O’Neill, the 1989 school funding and desegregation lawsuit in Hartford. “The Sheff case was a long struggle by a group of outstanding civil rights lawyers, plaintiffs and local residents who supported the change and those who worked with them… The efforts have not eliminated segregation or ended racial achievement gaps but it is the only state in the Northeast that is going in a positive direction and it has created voluntary processes that have clearly reduced severe segregation in a time devoid of national leadership.”
While the extraordinary inter-district magnet schools with specialty curricula and the inter-district enrollment program that Sheff created have increased the mixing of students from city and suburb and demonstrated that black, white and Hispanic students can happily and successfully learn together, Connecticut’s charter sector, by contrast, has become highly segregated. Orfield and Ee explain: “A 2014 report by Connecticut Voices for Children concluded that ‘a majority of the magnet schools and technical schools were ‘integrated’… but only 18% of charter schools.’ In fact ‘the majority of charter schools were instead ‘hypersegregated’ with a student body composed of more than 90% minority students.'” Orfield and Ee recommend that in Connecticut, where public and magnet schools have become more integrated, “Charters should come under the state’s diversity policies and requirements and should have goals, recruitment strategies, public information and transportation policies to foster diversity including diversity of language background.”
In a second paper, published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, scholars from Duke University document that segregation of charters has been an accelerating trend in North Carolina. The paper, “The Growing Segmentation of the Charter School Sector in North Carolina,” by Helen F. Ladd, Charles T. Clotfelter, and John B. Holbein, is behind a paywall, but an early draft, can be downloaded here from among the papers presented at the 40th annual conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy. The Duke researchers describe a study conducted between 1999 and 2012 and conclude: “The state’s charter schools, which started out disproportionately serving minority students, have been serving an increasingly white student population over time.” The authors also conclude that rising test scores in North Carolina’s charters are not the result of improved school quality—as has been suggested by promoters of charter schools—but are instead the result of a shift in population as many charters have come to enroll students with higher average family income: “Our analysis of the changing mix of students who enroll in charter schools over time… leads us to believe that a major factor contributing to the apparent improved performance of charter schools over the period (of the study) may have as much or more to do with the trends in the types of students they are attracting than improvements in the quality of the programs they offer… Taken together, our findings imply that the charters schools in North Carolina have become segmented over time, with one segment increasingly serving the interests of middle class white families.”
Reporting on the Duke study for the Washington Post, Jeff Guo explains that North Carolina laws governing charter schools may be contributing to the diminishing number of minority students in North Carolina’s charter schools: “One problem is that disadvantaged students have less of a chance to attend a charter school. First, they or their parents have to be plugged in enough to know which are the good charter schools and motivated enough to apply. Then, they need to have the resources to actually attend the charter, because unlike regular public schools, charter schools in North Carolina do not have to offer transportation or lunch to students. For poor students who rely on school buses and free meal programs, the costs associated with attending a charter school may discourage them from the opportunity.”
As school districts across the South have remedied de jure segregation and been released from their court orders and after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2007 that race cannot be the sole basis of voluntary desegregation plans to remedy segregation by race, neither the federal government nor the states have been proactively supporting school integration. It is another thing altogether, however, when market-based charter schools, which are said by their promoters to be public schools, are freed from the existing civil rights policies that govern public schools and that our society still claims to value.