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Racial Segregation in Charter Schools

In our rush to adopt unproven reforms, have we turned back the clock on segregation in public schools?

When charter schools began popping up around the United States in the early 1990s, their original intent was to promote choice and influence change in traditional public schools.

However, some of the nation's most segregated schools today are charter schools, where students are often isolated by race, income, language and special education status

In 2010, Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University has done extensive research on charter school reforms throughout the United States and Europe, found strong evidence of racial segregation in charter schools.

Looking specifically at racial segregation, both White flight and minority flight are evidenced in charter schools. Compounding the effects of the nation’s highly segregated neighborhoods, policy makers must consider the economic, social and ethnic segregative effects of charter schools along with potential segregation that may be driven by other forms of school choice.

His report concluded that "In a highly splintered and divided nation and world, policies that increase segregation should be remedied, not encouraged."

A new policy brief out today addresses some of those concerns.  The report, Chartering Equity: Using Charter School Legislation and Policy to Advance Equal Educational Opportunity, offers guidance on how charter school policies can be best used to encourage equity goals.

The report, written and researched by Julie F. Mead of the University of Wisconsin and Preston C. Green III of Penn State, was produced by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (GLC) and the Ford Foundation. The report is part of Ford Foundation-funded Initiative on Diversity, Equity, and Learning (IDEAL).

In a companion document, Model Policy Language for Charter School Equity, Mead and Green offer model legislation to carry out those recommendations.

According to Mead and Green,

Charter school policies can be shaped in ways that promote equity and inclusion.

The report focuses on three key assumptions and recommendations:

  1. Charter schools will be part of our public educational system for the foreseeable future.
  2. Charter schools are neither inherently good, nor inherently bad.
  3. Charter schools should be employed to further goals of equal educational opportunity, including racial diversity and school success.

The creation of charter schools is just one among a variety of policy tools at the disposal of local, state, and national policy makers. As with all educational policy tools, one challenge is to wield the tool in a manner that will enhance equity and opportunity.

While much of the current reform debate revolves around whether or not charter schools should exist or can coexist with public schools, this new report changes the course of debate and offers clear recommendations for enhancing equity and opportunity.

I encourage you to read more.


The report out today justifiably avoids the typical arguments about charter schools and focuses almost exclusively on racial and equity issues.

Research has shown that "43 percent of black charter school students attended schools that were 99 percent minority.  Meanwhile, less than 15 percent of black students in traditional public schools attend such highly segregated schools."

This trend runs counter to our societal values of inclusiveness, diversity and equal opportunity.

Mead and Green offer an array of suggestions, model legislation, and policy recommendations for charter school reform

Charters serve an important purpose in many communities around the country, and through legislation and policy changes, we can work to improve equity in all our schools.

ESEA, passed in 1965 as a part of Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," emphasized equal access to education and established high standards and accountability.

Charter schools should be held to the same standards as traditional public schools. Clearly, more can and should be done to ensure equity.

The authors recommend that policymakers should

  1. Establish a clear set of principles that will guide the exercise of the authority to grant, oversee, renew, and revoke charters.
  2. Require that charter school applicants make clear how the school will broaden, not replicate, existing opportunities for struggling populations of students in the community or communities intended to be served by the school.
  3. Submit detailed recruitment plans to ensure they are targeting a diverse student applicant pool representative of the broader community.
  4. State explicitly that charter school must comply with all federal laws and any desegregation decrees.
  5. Require charter school applicants to detail disciplinary codes and procedures and require a focus on positive interventions and supports.
  6. Call on Congress to rewrite portions of federal law to require states to submit written equal opportunity plans prior to receiving federal funding for charter schools.


The authors make it abundantly clear that charter schools are a part of the educational system and are not going away. As much as detractors would like to see them dissolve, it is in our best interest to make all of our schools representative of the ideal goals of our society.

It is interesting to read Mead and Green's recommendations, as they serve as reminders that policymakers should look outside the box in discussing education reforms.

In closing, the authors offer their thoughts:

Ensuring that public educational dollars serve equity requires balancing the parents’ choices against principle of parens patriae, the state’s interest in ensuring children’s education meets appropriate standards.  This interest, combined with concerns about charter schools and whether they serve all children regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, language, disability and gender, strongly suggest that states and their students would benefits from explicit policies designed to increase the equity and outcomes of charter schools.

Policymakers should be cautioned about rushing to judgement for or against charter schools, but if they must change laws or policy, policymakers should read this recent report by Mead and Green on improving equity.



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ITeachQ is an educator who is an advocate for research-based change in schools and strong public schools as the key to creating a better future. ...