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Cloaking Inequity: New Study Released: Are Charter Schools More Intensely Segregated?

We are honored today to release a new study entitled Choice without inclusion?: Comparing the intensity of racial segregation in charters and public schools at the local, state and national levels that examines segregation in the entire universe of US public and charter schools.

In its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 [1], the United States Supreme Court powerfully concluded that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ had no place. Further, “separate educational facilities,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for a unanimous court “are inherently unequal.” It has been over sixty years since the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown to abolish the separate-but-equal legal doctrine and Jim Crow segregation by race. Yet, since that time, courts have allowed de facto segregation to flourish [2]and, as a result, schools in the United States are more segregated than they were at the time of the Brown decision [3].

The resegregation of the United States, in contravention of Brown, has occurred as a result of judicial retrenchment, but also due to other factors such as lax executive enforcement and White flight [4]. Not incidentally, during the past two decades, schools in the United States have become increasingly segregated by race and class. According to the national data, nowhere is the problem more acute than in the nation’s charter schools [5]. While public schools have generally acknowledged the problem and have usually agreed to remedies to address segregation [6], some charter supporters have sought to downplay the issue, emphasizing the need to provide greater choice to low income and minority students as a means of achieving an educational equity in outcomes regardless of the racial composition of the school [7]. In fact, some charter advocates have suggested that racial segregation within schools is acceptable if that comes as a natural by-product of parental choice [8].

Established nearly a quarter-century ago, the first taxpayer supported, privately-operated charter schools were conceived of as learning laboratories that might inspire curricular innovation [9]. In the past decade, proponents have reimagined charter schools as institutions of learning dedicated to providing poor and disadvantaged students with greater access to a high-quality education [10]. These viewpoints mask the serious issues of inequity that remain outstanding, even after the Supreme Court first declared that segregated schools were inherently unequal. More than 60 years after Brown, research confirms that charter and public schools servicing predominately poor students of color still do so with reduced resources, less academic rigor, in the form of limited access to advanced coursework, and largely untrained or inexperienced teachers [11].

Purporting to address the educational opportunity gaps in the U.S., school choice proponents have linked market-based educational approaches to the legacy of the Civil Rights movement by framing their movement to foster “education choice” as the greatest Civil Rights issue of our time [12]. However, substantiation on the claims of academic excellence proffered by charter advocates is mixed [13–15]. Opponents have been quick to point out a number of flaws in the rhetoric including the high degree of segregation within such schools [16]. They see the charter movement as a betrayal of the Brown decision in abdicating, through privatization and private-control of education, an essential function of government to provide education to citizens as a public good [17]. Critics have also been disapproving of the way in which the proliferation of charters has redirected crucial funding away from traditional public schools while, in many cases, reproducing and perpetuating the same racial imbalance Brown sought to correct [11].

According to US Department of Education, charters currently makeup only a small percentage of U.S. schools, approximately 7% [18]. Prior research using national data has found that they are the most segregated of the nation’s schools, especially for Black and Latinx (We use Latinx as an attempt to decolonize the Spanish language and neutralize gender [19]) students [20]. Many of the nation’s charters can even be classified as “apartheid schools”—a term coined by UCLA Professor Gary Orfield for schools with a White student enrollment of 1 percent or less [21]. School choice supporters often point out that while neighborhood segregation is out of their control—although in some states charter schools can use neighborhood borders to fix enrollment—the reality is that most charter schools have not prioritized or experienced desegregation as a desired outcome [22].

While geography and residential segregation patterns contribute to the segregation in charter schools, in reality the schools with the most flexibility, hypothetically, to achieve significant diversity, have instead apparently chosen not to address the problem [23,24]. Are charters more segregated than public schools at the local, state and national levels? If so, does local demography explain why charter schools feature more racial isolation than public schools?

We conduct descriptive and inferential analyses of publicly available Common Core of Data (CCD) to examine segregation at the local, state, and national levels. Nationally, we find that higher percentages of charter students of every race attend intensely segregated schools. The highest levels of racial isolation are at the primary level for public and middle level for charters. We find that double segregation by race and class is higher in charter schools. Charters are more likely to be segregated, even when controlling for local ethnoracial demographics. A majority of states have at least half of Blacks and a third of Latinx in intensely segregated charters. At the city level, we find that higher percentages of urban charter students were attending intensely segregated schools.

In summary, what did we find? National, state, and local data indicate that the charter industry has a segregation problem in the US and it is not simply explained away by locality or demography.

Reference: Vasquez Heilig. J., Brewer, J. and Williams, Y. (2019). Choice without inclusion?: Comparing the intensity of racial segregation in charters and public schools at the local, state and national levels. Journal of Education Sciences, 9(3), 1-17.

(See the paper for the numbered citations)

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Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is the Dean and a Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation at the University of Kentucky College of Education.

In addition to educational accomplishments, Julian Vasquez Heilig has held a variety of research and practitioner positions in organizations from Boston to Beijing. These experiences have provided formative...