The Associated Press recently published an analysis that claims charter schools increase segregation in America's public schools. Charter schools are public schools operated by independent organizations, usually nonprofits. Freed from many of the rules that constrain district-operated schools, they can craft programs that meet the needs of their students. In exchange for increased autonomy, they are normally held accountable for their performance by their authorizers, who close or replace them if their students are falling too far behind. Most are schools of choice, and unlike magnet schools in traditional districts, they are not allowed to select their students. The AP's analysis relies on the previously discredited methodology of UCLA professor Gary Orfield's 2012 study. Education reformers and civil rights activists have already spoken out against the report and its unfair condemnation of charters. But one can't help but fear that such falsehoods will be turned into "truths" by anti-charter crusaders, especially those—like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten—who were quick to promote the badly done analysis as " damning evidence" of the failure of public charter schools. The truth is that public charter schools are giving long overdue opportunities to minority children by providing high-quality educations. America should be praising them. Instead, crusaders like Weingarten use their lies to influence Americans and disempower thousands of minority families.
Truth #1: Residential segregation, not charter schools, increases "racial isolation" in public schools.Orfield and others compare the average racial makeup of charter schools to the average racial makeup of traditional public schools, nationally. This is misleading, because so many charter founders have located their schools in the inner city, to serve low-income minority children. The admirable mission of these schools inevitably means that they will serve a high number of students of color. But studies that compare them to nearby traditional public schools, serving the same neighborhoods, find them only slightly heavier in minority enrollment. In America, decades of racist housing policies have created neighborhoods that are residentially segregated. In many districts, boundary lines based on students' home addresses still determine where they'll attend school. Buying a home for your family can also mean buying access to a good public school for your children. In this neighborhood-based system, school populations inevitably reflect the living patterns of the district: The more affluent and racially isolated a neighborhood is, the more affluent and racially isolated the schools are, and vice versa. Roughly two-thirds of suburban children are White. Where are the protests over public school segregation at schools predominately composed of White and Asian students? Where are the criticisms of White families that access high-quality schools by moving to the suburbs, thereby increasing racial segregation? The truth is that in recent years segregation has been increasing across all of America's public schools. Racially and socioeconomically segregated neighborhoods have led to racially and socioeconomically segregated schools. Blaming public charter schools for the re-segregation of America's schools is a distraction created by critics who can no longer deny the success these schools have had in educating low-income and minority students.
Truth #2: Choice is not equal to force.When Gary Orfield originally called public charter schools "segregated" and termed schools with more than 99 percent of one race "apartheid schools," he was using code words as a political tool. It's impossible to separate the word "segregation" from Jim Crow laws and images of the violent history of racism that has plagued our nation. However, "segregated" public charter schools differ from our nation's history of segregation in a major way: Minority families are choosing these schools. In a charter system, parents choose the educational model and academic climate they feel best fits the needs of their children. Schools of choice transcend boundary zones by accepting students from anywhere. In residentially segregated America, school choice empowers minority families by giving them options. Conflating their freedom to make a choice for their children with a history of imposed segregation is disingenuous. Bill Wilson, the first African-American elected to the St. Paul City Council, and Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change, put it well: "Some critics don't seem to understand the huge difference between forcing people because of their race, to attend a school, and giving new options to people, especially those from low-income families and families of color. "As a child growing up in southern Indiana, one of us knew far too well what segregated schools were. He was bused past three all-White schools in order to attend the one designated for children of color." Minority families are choosing charter schools, regardless of their demographic makeup, because [pullquote position]in so many neighborhoods, charters are the only quality schools. Responding to the AP's analysis, activist Howard Fuller tweeted: https://twitter.com/HowardLFuller/status/937423536725078019?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.usnews.com%2Fopinion%2Fknowledge-bank%2Farticles%2F2017-12-21%2F5-facts-about-americas-segregated-charter-schools
Truth #3: Questioning the right to school choice disempowers minority families.For years, America's public education system has denied low-income families a say in where their children go to school. Families with means have always had the option to choose the best education available—they've sent their children to private schools, moved to the suburbs, paid for SAT prep courses and more. Low-income minority families should also have the right to make choices for their children. Questioning their right to choose a high-quality charter school over a failing neighborhood school hinders social justice. Criticizing minority families when they choose high-performing schools with predominately Black and Brown student bodies is patronizing. As Fuller writes, "Why should people who have been denied a great school in their neighborhood now be criticized for attending one because it's all Black?"
Truth #4: Academic success is as important as diversity.Virtually all research shows that students at public charter schools in low-income urban areas significantly outperform their demographically similar peers at district schools. The 2016 Brookings Institute report on charters and segregation concluded, "Charter schools with strong academic focus and 'no-excuses' philosophy that serve poor Black students in urban areas stand as contradictions to the general association between school-level poverty and academic achievement. These very high-poverty, high-minority schools produce achievement gains that are substantially greater than the traditional public schools in the same catchment areas." A 2015 report from Stanford University's Center for Research on Educational Outcomes revealed that after four years in a charter school, the typical urban student was getting half a year more learning every year than demographically similar peers, with similar past test scores, in district-operated schools. Ignoring the academic success of these schools and focusing instead on their lack of diversity serves the agenda of the teachers unions' anti-charter propaganda machine. It also promotes a dangerous stigma about schools mostly comprised of students of color, suggesting that the academic achievements of these schools are less meaningful than those at schools with a portion of White students. This is false. In fact, at many "integrated" urban schools, day-to-day life is actually quite segregated, with most White students in honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes and most minorities in standard classes, going anywhere but college. Diversity is a goal the nation should strive for, but not if it means sacrificing academic excellence for our most undeserved students. Public charter schools have done what traditional public schools have failed to do for decades: educate our most disadvantaged kids. America should be celebrating them, not crucifying them for their lack of diversity.
Truth #5: Low-income and minority children need access to high-quality education now.Without question, integration is good for students. Students who attend socioeconomically and racially integrated schools do better academically, while developing a variety of cognitive and social skills from their experience in a diverse environment. They develop empathy for and understanding of people who look or talk differently than they do. In today's atmosphere of increasing intolerance, America needs more empathy and understanding. Integrated education should remain our ultimate goal. School choice and charter schools offer several avenues for reaching this goal, as David Osborne and I have written in previous articles. However, disadvantaged children cannot wait for nation-wide integrated public school systems; these students need access to a high-quality education now. Public charter schools are providing it to them. Dr. Kenneth Clark, the first Black president of the American Psychological Association and a civil rights activist whose psychology research was integral in the Supreme Court's Brown v. The Board of Education decision, believed strongly in integration. Ten years after the Brown decision, however, Clark was disappointed in our progress. In 1968, he argued that the path to integrated public schools had two steps. The first was to ensure that all African-American children had access to high-quality education, regardless of each school's demographics. More than 50 years after Brown, charter schools are working to make that happen. Let's stop derailing this movement by condemning school leaders who have dedicated their lives to educating our most underserved students. Let's stop hurting minority children by creating roadblocks—such as calls for moratoriums on charter schools and efforts to cap charter expansion—that prevent them from attending quality schools. Let's stop falling victim to the anti-charter propaganda machine, run by those with power and means who continually disempower Black and Brown families by questioning their right to choose the best education for their children, all the while knowing that their children will never have to suffer such indignity.
An original version of this post appeared on U.S. News and World Report as The Truth About 'Segregated' Charter Schools.
Photo courtesy of The Montessori School of Englewood-Chicago.
Emily Langhorne is an analyst and project manager for the Reinventing America's School Project at the Progressive Policy Institute.