Are Charter Schools Creating More Segregation?

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May 2012; Source:Poverty & Race Research Action Council and The Century Fund

Try this on for size: America’s public schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1950s. According to an Alternet article from 2010, “Today, one-third of black students attend school in places where the black population is more than 90 percent. A little less than half of white students attend schools that are more than 90 percent white. One-third of all black and Latino students attend high-poverty schools (where more than 75 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch); only 4 percent of white children do…In 1990 more than 40 percent of black students in the South were attending majority-white schools. Today, fewer than 30 percent of students do — roughly the same percentage as in the late 1960s, when many districts were still refusing to implement 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education.”

Has this nation sort of quietly given up on the benefits of racial integration in education? A new report from the new report from the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRAC) and The Century Fund (TCF) raises questions about the charter school movement, stating that, in many cases, charter schools are structured to “have high concentrations of poverty and large numbers of minority students.” According to their statistics, “the nation’s charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to be high poverty (51–100 percent of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch), extremely high poverty (76–100 percent free and reduced-price lunch), or racially isolated for minorities (90–100 percent of students are racial minorities).” The authors ascribe this, in part, to education policy and to the funding priorities of foundations which emphasize the charters focusing on racial and poverty concentrations. 

Is the separate but (in theory or in self-promotion) superior schooling offered by charter schools really an inferior option that falls prey to the Brown v. Board of Education finding that “separate but equal” is really “separate and unequal?”

PRRAC and TCF argue for racially and economically diverse charter schools, citing the following factors: (1) the “civic, social, and cognitive benefits” for students who attend socio-economically and racially integrated schools; (2) given the mixed and often disappointing results regarding academic gains for pupils in charter schools, the “numerous studies (that) have shown that low-income students generally perform better in middle-class schools”; and (3) what they describe as “a chance to experiment and broaden the base” by developing pedagogical approaches to educating diverse student populations and thereby attracting suburban parent support for the charter school model.

Their suggestions for creating racially and socio-economically diverse charter schools include strategies such as intentionally locating charter schools where they might attract and be accessible to a diverse population, using targeted student recruitment, weighted admissions, deploying “a variety of curricula and pedagogies,”  and instituting programs that embrace a diverse school culture.

PRRAC and TCF are very philanthropically savvy outfits, and as a result they aren’t shy about identifying the roles that foundations, as major proponents of the charter school movement, have played in fostering segregated charter schools and what they might do to make charters more racially and economically integrated. This isn’t the first time that the issue of charter school re-segregation has been raised as a topic of public and philanthropic policy. Do NPQ Newswire readers see the lack of diversity in charter schools as a Brown v. Board of Education-like problem or as a necessary step toward the academic liberation of students in poor, racially concentrated neighborhoods?—Rick Cohen

  • jannie

    observations re; charter schools.
    if the administrations (principals etc.) are of black or hispanic,expect more hispanic or black students.

    only when the administration is of caucasian then there is an equal diversity.

    my own observations of these charters, magnets schools………i am from the minority (oriental) we go where ever there is good education offer.

  • David

    The solution for one family to have a superior education seems so simple, and my kids used it to attend the nation’s best high school (thhss&t) and some of the best colleges: MIT, U.VA, VaTech, Emory, UC Berkeley, NYU Law. (1) Determine the entrance requirements to the best schools in your region. (2) Several years before being eligible for such a best school, gain the credentials for admission (such as top grades, extracurricular skills). (3) Apply to the school and gain entrance. (4) Repeat the process, by selecting the best school at your next level, and preparing now for the entrance requirements.

    The statement that segregation is the same now as in the 1950s is absurd. I lived in the South. My bus went through other neighborhoods, where the kids in those neighborhoods would throw rocks at us. Those kids were not permitted at my school or on my bus. Except for a few exceptions (like the school’s best football linesmen), there was total segregation. Same with the bathrooms, pools, water coolers, jobs, and real-estate transactions in the town. Life is infinitely better now. Everyone has opportunity, if each would just plan his/her schools and seek the best possible grades.

  • George Richmond

    I am on the Board of the Foundation of the Amy Biehl Charter High School in Albuquerque, NM, a state chartered High School.We accept students from all over the state, although they mostly come from Albuquerque and the general area.

    Under state law, we accept all applicants, but if there are more applicants than openings, the State Board of Education will hold a lottery. However, most of our students are from economically challenged backgrounds and our percent of minority students (Hispanic, Native American and Black) are higher than the average in the area.

    As a point of interest, we stress academics and tell the incoming students that they are starting an eight year voyage through high school and college. We graduate about 80% of our seniors, which is well above the Albuquerque Public School results and send about 98% of our graduates to college.

  • michael

    What’s missing here is an acknowledgement that Charters (and vouchers) are a demand driven phenomenon. It’s parents who are deeply committed to education saying “We want something better for our kids…we want out, now. They’re not going to wait around for some PhDs with research or some Educrat with some new faddish ‘reform‘ effort. There’s too much at stake for their kids.

    It would be more productive for public school bureaucracies to ask “Why are we losing our customers

  • rick cohen

    Dear Michael: Thanks for your comment. Yes, I hear and acknowledge what you are saying about the parental demand for charters because of what they perceive–in some cases–as the inadequacies of the public school systems. Much of what the better charters do could easily be done within “traditional” or “mainstream” public schools, and hopefully the “yardstick competition” from those better schools will get the public systems to improve and make reforms that are well within their capabilities. I think, however, the issue that the articles I cited in the newswire make is about whether the issue of racial integration is important as part of the educational process, and whether parents, in their demands for alternatives to the public schools (which themselves are statistically becoming less racially integrated), may be sacrificing the goal of integrated schools. Public school systems should be asking why they are losing their customers, and charter schools might want to ask what roles they might want to uphold after the nation’s contentious history of school integration in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Thanks again for writing in.

  • Leonard Allman

    This is a “no brainer.” As long as charter schools are permitted to exclude students who don’t conform to their system of rules,conduct,behavior,etc., they will be separate AND unequal. Flies in the face of Brown vs. Board of Education, in my opinion. Also, a not very subtle method of weakening the National Education Association (NEA) by the conservative Republicans. How many charter schools are started/supported by liberal/moderate Democrats?


  • michael


    Ultimately it comes down to choice….and it’s the choice of the parents which matter, not the thoughts and feelings of the Department Of Education. Diversity may be a priority of the Powers That Be, but parents’ priorities are essentially “Can my kid read, write, do math and think critically after all this is done”. That’s the main driver of the charter movement. A school may be wonderfully diverse, but if it can’t carry out it’s main mission of educating children then any thoughtful parent will be looking for the exits

    As with a number of nonprofits of note, the failure of public schools stems from Mission Drift….too much time and energy spent on the “goal of integrated schools” and too little on actual education. Ultimately, this has destroyed the public’s confidence in the system.

  • Hope Benniot

    ::*:*:** i don have an opinion on thi because i do not attend a charter school or anything

  • Tammy

    I have two daughters that graduated from an Aspire Public Charter School. They both graduated and went on to four year universities and I have one in graduate school at Columbia University. The principle, at the time my daughters attended was a African American male. He made certain that the campus was diversified in it’s population; both Latino and African American students. He left the school in 2008 and the leadership was changed to a Latino principle and administrative staff and in 2012 my son began going to the same middle/high school and there is now 8 African American students in a school with a population of over 400. This school is located in a community that is primarily an African American. I agree that charter schools do create a separate and yet unequal educational opportunity that is driven by racism!!!!