Alan Gottlieb’s post from last Thursday points readers to a study from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles [11 mb pdf], which analyzed charter schools across the country and found them to be substantially more racially isolated than traditional public schools. The study has received quite a bit of attention as well as pushback from charter school advocates.
Today, CU-Boulder’s own policy center, along with its partner policy center at ASU (collectively, EPIC/EPRU) will release a study that, coincidentally, asks some of the same questions as did the UCLA study. Our study provides a comprehensive examination of enrollment patterns in schools operated by private corporations and finds these schools to be segregated by race, family income, disabilities, and English language learner status.
As compared with their local public school districts, these schools operated by Education Management Organizations, or EMOs, are substantially more segregated, and the strong segregative pattern found in 2001 is virtually unchanged through 2007.
This new study, Schools without Diversity: Education Management Organizations, Charter Schools, and the Demographic Stratification of the American School System, is written by Gary Miron, Jessica Urschel, and Elana Tornquist of Western Michigan University, and William Mathis of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Please find this new report here.
The fact that our conclusions are remarkably similar to the UCLA study is particularly noteworthy. The two studies, conducted independently using different data, different researchers, and different methods, both found extensive segregation in charter schools. This type of independent verification is extraordinarily important as it establishes that the findings are robust – are not just the result of one particular way of looking at the data. Together, these two new studies paint a powerful picture of charters adding to the school segregation caused by the nation’s highly segregated neighborhoods.
The EMO study is particularly important because the Obama administration has placed a great deal of faith in the scaling up of nonprofit EMOs (sometimes called Charter Management Organizations, or CMOs) as part of the administration’s turnaround strategy. The findings of this new study suggest that these policies have the very real potential to be harmful to the nation’s social and educational interests.
Having just read the various responses the UCLA study, allow me to preemptively address those concerns, which may also be raised in response to the EPIC/EPRU study:
- Pointing to the segregation is in no way condemning the schools, teachers, or students at those segregated schools. Individually, these can be great schools. What these studies highlight is a policy shift away from the Brown v. Board understanding and ambition. We’ve moved from “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” back to a version of Plessy’s “separate but equal,” generally stated as something like, “segregation doesn’t matter; what matters is that we hold every school accountable for excellence.”
- While high-quality segregated schools – whether charters or not – deserve praise for their excellent academic outcomes, I am troubled by the abandonment of the diversity goal. Why, in reading the responses to the UCLA study, do I see so many people buying into a false dichotomy between excellence and diversity? We should approach charter schools with the foundational understanding that diversity and high achievement are mutually reinforcing and then structure our charter policies accordingly.
- The reality is that charter schools as a whole do not appear to generate improved test scores. So, looking at these two new studies, it seems that we are getting the harms of segregation without any significant achievement benefits. Yet charters and choice are here to stay, so the questions we should be asking concern how to best structure choice policies to further both goals – diversity and excellence. In his comment below Alan’s post, Alex Ooms offered one suggestion on how this might be done: require charters (and, one might add, non-charters) to roughly reflect the wealth diversity of their surrounding districts or community. The same can be done for English language learners and students with special needs – and issues of race can also be addressed if structured in a non-individualized manner.
- Both the EPIC/EPRU study and the UCLA study show racial stratification in both directions. That is, we’re seeing both “White flight” and “minority flight”. Several comments I’ve seen therefore conclude that we’re attacking Latino and African American students for choosing non-diverse schools. Speaking for myself, I would never condemn a parent for making such a choice. If a parent perceives his or her best schooling option to be a segregated school, I would certainly hope that the segregation isn’t the reason for that conclusion. But ultimately I’m not in a position to question any given parent’s choice. I should note that surveys consistently show that parents of all races state a preference for integrated schools, all else being equal. So what I do question are state policies that fail to create incentives for schools, including charter schools, to have that diversity.
- Finally, please go back and take a look at the bottom of Alan’s post to see the table that the Colorado League of Charter Schools sent him in anticipation of the UCLA report’s release. It presents Colorado state-level data showing the overall charter school enrollment to be very similar to overall Colorado non-charter public school enrollment. But this completely misses the point about school-level segregation. In fact, I imagine a similar table could have been generated for 1960 Alabama, since black students were generally in enrolled some public schools, while white students were enrolled in others. If we average out the enrollments in all-black and all-white schools, we will by definition come up with the same percentages as the schools overall. It’s a good thing that charters in Colorado end up serving a representative swath of the state’s population, but the school-level segregation pointed out in these reports raises a separate and important issue.
Ultimately, I hope those who criticized the UCLA report and who might be tempted to criticize the new EPIC/EPRU report take a step back and consider the long-term benefits to the charter movement if it embraces reforms designed to create greater school-level diversity. Yes, these reports do raise serious concerns about the current situation, but they aren’t calling for charters to be abandoned. They are calling for meaningful reflection and change so that these schools can help move the country toward its ideals.
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