New Reports Confirm Charter Schools Promote Racial Segregation in CT and NC

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.

Apartheid Schooling in America: Federal Education Policy Reflects Poor Understanding of Structural Racism

Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute who has extensively studied the role of poverty in American public school achievement and more recently investigated the role of racial segregation, wrote last week about his recent experience  as a member of a panel of responders to an interview of Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the Diane Rehm Show.  When asked about the significance of integrated public schools, Arne Duncan answered that for himself the experience of growing up in schools with children of other races and ethnicities benefited him personally by preparing him to work comfortably with all kinds of people.

Rothstein pegs Duncan’s answer as typical of the “diversity” argument used to justify racial integration in two well-known affirmative action cases, Bakke and Grutter.  Rothstein declares that last week Arne Duncan failed to demonstrate a grasp of the deeper problem in segregated education:  “When African-American students from impoverished families are concentrated together in racially isolated schools, in racially isolated neighborhoods… the obstacles to these students’ success are most often overwhelming.”

Rothstein correctly challenges Duncan to recognize the damage of what Jonathan Kozol has called “apartheid schooling.”  Rothstein points out that Arne Duncan has been very willing to condition states’ winning  federal Title I competitive grants (through Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and No Child Left Behind waivers) on states’ agreeing to adopt Duncan’s favorite school reforms including the adoption of the Common Core Standards and the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their teachers.  Why not, suggests Rothstein, instead provide federal incentives for suburbs to change zoning ordinances that exclude low- and moderate-income housing?  Why not require states to insist that landlords in all school districts accept Section 8 housing vouchers as a condition for receiving competitive federal education grants?

Rothstein is, of course, challenging Secretary Duncan’s simplistic definition of racism as  a person-to-person matter reflecting our prejudices and biases and whether we have had personal opportunities that make us comfortable with people from different races and ethnicities.  A book of essays, Twenty-First Century Color Lines, published four years ago and edited by Andrew Grant-Thomas and Gary Orfield is among the best resources I know for clarifying issues of racism including a nuanced definition of racism that would perhaps expand Arne Duncan’s approach.

In the third essay, “Structural Racism and Color Lines in the United States,” John Powell and Andrew Grant-Thomas of the Kirwan Institute at the Ohio State University define the layers of racism that pervade our society:  “Where the individual racism view focuses on race-targeted, discretionary treatment, institutional racism speaks to the race-targeted and procedural… dimension of racism.  As institutional racism shifts our focus from the motives and actions of individual people to practices and procedures within an institution, structural racism shifts attention from the singular, intra-institutional setting to inter-institutional arrangements and actions.  ‘Inter-institutional arrangements and interactions’ are what we mean by ‘structures’….  Because Americans often take individual people to be the main vehicles of racism, we generally fail to appreciate the work done by racially inequitable structures…  A society marked by highly interdependent opportunity structures and large, inter-institutional resource disparities will likely be very unequal with respect to the outcomes governed by those institutions and structures.” (122-124)

Rothstein points to examples of the intersection of the many structures that perpetuate separate and unequal education in our society.  If the Secretary of Education were to recognize that housing policy and transportation policy converge with education policy to diminish opportunity, perhaps he could begin to take broader action.

In the conclusion to Twenty-First Century Color Lines, Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA theorizes that today’s accountability-based school reform fails by ignoring structural racism and persistently blaming a range of individuals:  “The basic emphasis in recent decades has been on policies that simply ignore divisions of race, ethnicity, class, and immigrant status and assume that the problem is nothing that relates to those facts….   So since the early 1980s, as poverty and civil rights policies have been reversed, there has been a tidal wave of requirements and test and accountability measures, insistently rooted in the belief that the principal causes of remaining inequality are laxness of teachers and of students and they they can be cured by more demands and harsh sanctions…. On the welfare side the emphasis has been to push very hard to force welfare moms to take any kind of a job….  At the same time the assumption that laxness by police, the courts and the penal system has been responsible for the growth of crimes has been responsible for the growth of crimes committed overwhelmingly by virtually unemployable young high school dropouts, has been responsible for a massive expansion of the policy of incarceration….  The facts that long-term welfare and high dropout rates tend to be issues primarily of families of color living in areas of concentrated poverty, and that crime is concentrated there as well, have been treated as merely incidental or as a sign that there is something wrong with black and Latino communities.” (300)

Orfield continues:  “In the last half century we have built a civilization unique in world history—a vast predominantly suburban society in which each little suburb has the right (and the incentives) to try to extract resources from the city and other communities and to screen out through zoning and housing policies not only poor people but anyone who does not have a relatively high income…. It is a society in which location in certain sectors of suburbia and certain high schools and colleges confers enormous advantages, but where those are rarely available to the growing Latino and African American populations.  The existing trends are toward a society strikingly divided and declining in dangerous ways…” (288)