“Nearly 750 charter schools are whiter than the nearby district schools.”
This headline, from a June 2018 report by NBC News and the Hechinger Report, was both startling and yet somehow not at all surprising. The investigation in question found that, despite their status as public schools ostensibly open to all students, many charter schools look very different from the communities they serve. The disproportionality of white students to those of color is starkest in some districts where the public schools are primarily serving African American students, according to the report.
To channel the late Yogi Berra, this is too coincidental to be a coincidence. It simply makes no sense to argue that certain charter schools just happen to wind up with student populations that are so extremely different from the public schools in the same location. In fact, as the study noted, “some charters have used their greater flexibility to limit which kids make it through the schoolhouse doors—creating exclusive, disproportionately white schools.”
In one case noted by NBC, 73 percent of the students in a charter school were white compared with just 14 percent in the district’s traditional high school. In other places, the disparity was even greater. By 2015, “racially identifiable white charter schools” (those where the white population is at least 20 percent higher than in traditional public schools in the district) had appeared in more than 40 percent of the states where these schools are authorized, according to the report.
It is true that in many urban areas where the student population overwhelmingly is of color, some charters constitute the most diverse schools in the district. And, we can agree that a variety of factors affect parental decisions about selecting schools. Yet, in many cases it is not the parents who are deciding which school their children will attend, but the school itself. This can happen overtly by manipulating the selection process, or by creating barriers to admission. Requiring students to wear expensive uniforms or failing to offer transportation can have the effect of covertly eliminating the opportunity to enroll for many families who are not able to afford the clothing or to drive their children to school, for instance.
This is not to paint all charter schools with one broad brush. We know many of them are performing well. Still, this new report underscores two critical issues federal and state policymakers must take seriously. First, while choice in educational settings is a worthy public policy goal, any programs that advance it must be evaluated by their overall impact on the educational system and not simply on the students participating in them. The second point addresses the first: School choice programs involve the use of tax dollars paid by everyone, not just parents of the students who benefit from them. Accordingly, these programs must involve active oversight by elected officials. This is the basis for NSBA’s insistence that approval of charters be vested in local school boards, not bodies such as universities, museums, nonprofits, or other organizations that are unaccountable to the public.
One of the great success stories of the United States is its commitment to providing educational opportunities for all children, and doing so in an environment where races, ethnic groups, and cultures interact. The melting pot of America should be exemplified by its public schools. It is difficult to rationalize using tax dollars to create schools that have the effect of re-segregating public education. We shouldn’t even try.
This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of American School Board Journal.
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