Maxwell: Charter schools chart a segregated course

Published July 27, 2013

Charter schools are seen by many parents, policymakers and educators as the panacea in public education. Each year, these campuses are increasing in number nationwide.

In a recent survey of research on school choice and charter schools, the Hechinger Report, an independent education news affiliate of Teachers College at Columbia University, finds mounting evidence that charters are not a panacea. In fact, they are enabling our return to racial segregation in public education.

Some advocates used to believe that school choice through charters would help diversify public education despite racially segregated housing patterns. But that has not been happening.

"Charter schools and their proponents argue that charters must take any student who wants to attend — and randomly select students through a lottery if too many apply — and, as such, can't control who enrolls," according to the Hechinger Report. "Yet some experts are concerned that this trend is an example of the next phase of white flight, following a long history of white families seeking out homogeneous neighborhoods and schools."

At the beginning of the movement, many charters — independent public schools given freedom to be more innovative while being held accountable for raising student achievement — were established in cities, and they served predominantly African-American and other minority populations. But this is no longer the major trend.

In most parts of the nation, especially where whites find mandatory busing objectionable, predominantly white charters are being established in suburbia and other communities with high white populations.

No matter how we frame the debate, we are talking about contemporary segregation academies — those private schools that proliferated during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s as a way for whites to circumvent the desegregation order of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. After these academies took hold, many public schools, especially in the South, were left with mostly black students.

Operating with public money, charters are more subtle in determining who attends them. In addition to location and word-of-mouth marketing, many self-select by establishing curricula that appeal to specific groups. Touting their core mission, they do not mention diversity in their recruitment.

Some focus, for example, on classical education, or the "core knowledge model," the ostensible goal being to groom the whole child rather than prepare the child for a specific profession. Research shows that many minorities are interested in a curriculum that trains for jobs, and they shun the core knowledge model. Some charters tout their cultural traditions to attract specific families.

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Policymakers and educators disagree on the significance of charters' role in the racial isolation of schools.

"We have a long history of families and communities segregating themselves," Andre Perry, the associate director for educational initiatives at Loyola University's Institute for Quality and Equity in Education in New Orleans, told the Hechinger Report. "It's somewhat wrongheaded to say that charter schools are an impetus for segregation. The people are the impetus for segregation."

Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota and a charter school critic, says Perry is wrong: "Charters are either very white places or very nonwhite places. (Charters) are an accelerant to the normal segregation of public schools."

Few critics of charters are willing to state that self-selection is an indication of racism. Perry, for example, who laments the self-selection, told the Hechinger Report: "Middle- and upper-middle-class families have always tended to — in my opinion mistakenly — connect quality with sameness. It could be an explicit effort to segregate, but it's more likely a result of this notion that diversity is a sign of poor quality."

Evidence shows that most recent immigrants prefer schools in which their languages are spoken and that black families are more likely to place their children in racially segregated charter schools than are white families.

As long as parents seek the best for their children and as long as income, racial and ethic homogeneity are seen as a sign of quality, diversity will be viewed as an indication of inferiority. Charter schools, therefore, will flourish.