Are charter schools too segregated? Or does freedom of choice make segregation okay?


A report released earlier this year by the Civil Rights Project analyzed 40 states, the District of Columbia, and several dozen metropolitan areas with large enrollments of charter school students and found that charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools. 

Seventy percent of Black charter school students attend “intensely segregated” charter schools, and half of Latino charter school students nationwide attend racially isolated minority schools, the study noted. Also, when compared to other regions around the country, the Midwest has higher concentrations of Black students enrolled in charter schools.

Coverage of issues of race and race relations, cultural diversity and immigrant health issues is funded in part by a grant from the F.R. Bigelow Foundation.

Locally, over half of Twin Cities charter schools are non-White according to a November 2008 Institute on Race and Poverty report. 

Most of the students that attend Higher Ground Academy, a St. Paul K-12 charter school, are from East African countries, said its director, Bill Wilson, in a phone interview. He reported that “About 75 percent are from Somalia, [and] another 15 percent are from Ethiopia – two very different communities, belief systems [and] structures, differences in culture but some similarities, too. And another 10 percent are African American.”

Nonetheless, Wilson said he strongly disagrees with the notion that charter schools promote racial segregation. “That is absolutely not the case,” he told the MSR last week.

“All charter schools by law are schools of choice. That [choice] is something we didn’t have under a segregated society. When people exercise their choice, who are [critics] to say it is the wrong choice? People basically who make that statement are trying to choose for people.

“[Parents] are deciding by choice where they want their children to go to school,” continued Wilson. “It is primarily and fundamentally based on the idea that those children get a better education at that school than they were getting at other schools. If they are getting a worse education, they’d leave.”  

The issue of whether charter schools are too segregated was discussed by a panel of charter school proponents and critics at the 2010 National Charter Schools Conference in Chicago June 28-July 1.  

“To what extent are charter schools racially, economically and academically segregated?” asked Chicago-based Renaissance School Fund CEO Phyllis Lockett, who moderated the discussion. “We have to serve kids where they are,” she said, “and most of our communities are segregated.”

There is no right answer, claimed Western Michigan University education professor Gary Miron, who released a 60-page report on charter schools last February. He surmised that charter schools have contributed to both “White flight” and “Black flight” in many communities around the country, which has helped create a great number of schools now separated into “minority” and “White.”

“We are [also] seeing parents choosing [segregation]” for their children’s education, Miron added. 

“If we were really worried about integration and segregation, perhaps we might want to look at the 95 percent of kids in traditional public schools who are in segregated schools,” said University of Arkansas education policy professor Gary Ritter. “When we talk about integration and segregation, it might be looking for another way to criticize charter [schools]. And these charters that are segregated are schools of choice and are not the result of forced segregation.”

Ritter pointed out that White students often leave integrated traditional public schools to go to charter schools that are mostly White, whereas Blacks tend to leave already segregated public schools to attend equally segregated charter schools. He also suggested that more charter schools being established in mostly Black neighborhoods or neighborhoods with mostly low-income residents is a result of “intended segregation.”

Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) President Kenneth Campbell believes this as well: “I am a strong proponent that [charter] schools are open and available for all students,” he said. “While integrated schools are an important goal, I think the primary goal is to get all kids quality [education].

“The civil rights struggle around integrated schools was not integration for integration’s sake,” said Campbell. “It was about quality education for all kids. Schools are local,” he added. “We have to understand [our] neighborhoods.”

Among the panel discussion attendees was Nina Gilbert of Atlanta, Ga., who in 2008 started an all-girls charter school for grades 6-12; it is 80 percent females of color. She said afterwards that she encountered some resistance to starting her school, and state officials first denied her charter application in 2007.

“We found that this single [-gender] environment has been very effective,” Gilbert explained. “There is no posturing for the attention of boys. [The students] are all performing at high levels. We could be single gender and have a terrible curriculum and terrible teachers, and the single-gender model won’t work. It’s about having great practices, and the single-gender element is just one element.”

All schools “should speak to the issues of our communities,” said Ref Rodriguez, president and CEO of Partners for Developing Futures, an organization that operates Latino charter schools in Los Angeles.

“Although [integration] should be a goal,’ concluded moderator Lockett, “I think the issue is not about integration. It’s really about quality [education].


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