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Charter Schools and Segregation: What the Research Says

In a recent commentary in the New York Times entitled "School Choice Is the Enemy of Justice," Erin Aubry Kaplan, an author on race and a writing instructor at Antioch University in Los Angeles, argued that charter schools reflect the nation's disinterest in addressing the racial isolation of black and brown students in the nation's educational system. Brian Gill, a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research and one of the nation's leading independent researchers on charter schools, parses Kaplan's arguments.

Kaplan: In 1947, my father was one of a small group of black students at the largely white Fremont High School in South Central Los Angeles. The group was met with naked hostility, including a white mob hanging blacks in effigy. But such painful confrontations were the nature of progress, of fulfilling the promise of equality that had driven my father’s family from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the first place.

In 1972, I was one of a slightly bigger group of black students bused to a predominantly white elementary school in Westchester, a community close to the beach in Los Angeles. While I didn’t encounter the overt hostility my father had, I did experience resistance, including being barred once from entering a white classmate’s home because, she said matter-of-factly as she stood in the doorway, she didn’t let black people (she used a different word) in her house.

Still, I believed, even as a fifth grader, that education is a social contract and that Los Angeles was uniquely suited to carry it out. Los Angeles would surely accomplish what Louisiana could not.

I was wrong. Today Los Angeles and California as a whole have abandoned integration as the chief mechanism of school reform and embraced charter schools instead.

This has happened all over the country, of course, but California has led the way—it has 630,000 students in charter schools, more than any other state, and the Los Angeles Unified School District has more than 154,000 of themCharters are associated with choice and innovation, important elements of the good life that California is famous for. In a deep-blue state, that good life theoretically includes diversity, and many white liberals believe charters can achieve that, too. After all, a do-it-yourself school can do anything it wants.

Gill: A charter school cannot do anything it wants. It is true that charter schools are, by design, subject to fewer regulations and bureaucratic constraints than conventional public schools, and they are not directly operated by elected school boards. Freedom from these constraints is intended to allow them to innovate and focus on their educational mission. Even with these freedoms, charter schools remain subject to state and federal laws: They must be open to public, they must serve students of all backgrounds and educational needs, and they are accountable for the same educational outcomes as other public schools (in addition to being accountable to the families who choose to enroll their children). Moreover, they must demonstrate their effectiveness to authorizing agencies in order to have their charters renewed and continue operating.

But that’s what makes me uneasy, the notion that public schools, which charters technically are, have a choice about how or to what degree to enforce the social contract. There are many charter success stories, I know, and many make a diverse student body part of their mission.But charters as a group are ill suited to the task of justice because they are a legacy of failed justice.

Integration did not happen. The effect of my father’s and my foray into those white schools was not more equality but white flight. Largely white schools became largely black, and Latino schools were stigmatized as “bad” and never had a place in the California good life.

It’s partly because diversity can be managed—or minimized—that charters have become the public schools that liberal whites here can get behind. This is in direct contrast to the risky, almost revolutionary energy that fueled past integration efforts, which by their nature created tension and confrontation. But as a society—certainly as a state—we have lost our appetite for that engagement, and the rise of charters is an expression of that loss.

Choice and innovation sound nice, but they also echo what happened after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, when entire white communities in the South closed down schools to avoid the dread integration.

It is hard to see how this exclusionary history—sordid as it is—is relevant to charter schools in Los Angeles and cities across the country that largely serve low-income students of color, who have chosen to attend in the hope of getting a better education. Considerable evidence  suggests that charter schools in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods (including in Los Angeles) have served their students—who are overwhelmingly black and brown—extremely well (see here, here, here, here, and here).

This kind of racial avoidance has become normal, embedded in the public school experience. It seems particularly so in Los Angeles, a suburb-driven city designed for geographical separation. What looks like segregation to the rest of the world is, to many white residents, entirely neutral—simply another choice.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that in 2010, researchers at the Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A. found, in a study of 40 states and several dozen municipalities, that black students in charters are much more likely than their counterparts in traditional public schools to be educated in an intensely segregated setting. The report says that while charters had more potential to integrate because they are not bound by school district lines, “charter schools make up a separate, segregated sector of our already deeply stratified public school system.”

The UCLA study used a deeply flawed methodology (convincingly debunked here), comparing the demographic composition of charter schools with that of the nation as a whole, entire states, and large metropolitan areas. Charter schools tend to be located in low-income, high-minority neighborhoods, where conventional public schools have few if any white students. It is true that black students in urban charter schools have fewer white classmates than black students in suburban district schools, but the black students in urban charter schools typically have no access to suburban district schools. The relevant comparison is to charter students’ local options, which are often quite segregated themselves. Comparing charter schools to the nearest district-operated schools dramatically reduces the average differences, making the story far more complex, with wide variations in different communities and different schools.

In a 2017 analysis, data journalists at The Associated Press found that charter schools were significantly overrepresented among the country’s most racially isolated schools. In other words, black and brown students have more or less re-segregated within charters, the very institutions that promised to equalize education.

The Associated Press report repeated the error of the UCLA study, drawing highly misleading conclusions by failing to account for the characteristics of the communities that charter schools serve. As noted above, a better comparison would be to the conventional public schools in the same neighborhoods where the charters operate. Alternately, we could assess how charter schools affect segregation by examining changes in students’ exposure to students of other races/ethnicities as enrollments in charter schools and district schools change. My colleagues and I gathered longitudinal, student-level data in seven locations across the country (two states and five large cities), so that we could examine how students’ exposure to others of the same and different racial/ethnic groups changed when they transferred into charter schools.

We found variation across communities, but mostly small differences. On average, black students and white students tended to transfer to charter schools with slightly higher concentrations of their own race (4 percentage points higher for black students and 1 percentage point higher for white students), but Latinx students tended to transfer to charter schools with slightly lower concentrations (6 percentage points) of their own ethnicity. Students transferring to charter schools were not generally seeing dramatically different peers—and the differences sometimes increased exposure to other groups rather than reduced it.

Another way to assess charter schools’ impacts on integration involves taking a step back for a broader view of changes in public and charter schools over time, as a charter sector grows. Urban Institute researcher Matthew Chingos did exactly that in a study for the Brookings Institution. He collected nationwide school-level data over a period of nine years (2002-03 through 2010-11) when charter schools were opening at rapid rates in many states across the country. Then he examined whether schools became more racially homogenous in communities where charter schools were growing fastest. He found no clear relationship between the rate of charter school growth and changes in minority students’ exposure to non-minority classmates. Communities with more charter schools tended to have higher levels of segregation, but that was true because charter schools tend to open in communities where public schools (and neighborhoods) were already highly segregated. In other words, there was no evidence that charter schools are producing an increase in racial/ethnic isolation.

This has not stemmed the popular appeal of charters. School board races in California that were once sleepy are now face-offs between well-funded charter advocates and less well-funded teachers’ unions. Progressive politicians are expected to support charters, and they do. Gov. Jerry Brown, who opened a couple of charters during his stint as mayor of Oakland, vetoed legislation two years ago that would have made charter schools more accountable. Antonio Villaraigosa built a reputation as a community organizer who supported unions, but as mayor of Los Angeles, he started a charter-like endeavor called Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

This year, charter advocates got their pick for school superintendent, Austin Beutner. And billionaires like Eli Broad have made charters a primary cause: In 2015, an initiative backed in part by Mr. Broad’s foundation outlined a $490 million plan to place half of the students in the Los Angeles district into charters by 2023.

I live in Inglewood, a chiefly black and brown city in Los Angeles County that’s facing gentrification and the usual displacement of people of color. Traditional public schools are struggling to stay open as they lose students to charters. But those who support the gentrifying, which includes a new billion-dollar N.F.L. stadium in the heart of town, see charters as part of the improvements. They see them as progress.

Despite all this, I continue to believe in the social contract that in my mind is synonymous with public schools and public good.

The author’s invocation of education as a social contract that seeks to promote the public good is well taken. The reason public schools exist, supported by common tax dollars rather than tuition from individual families, is because they are intended to serve a public purpose: A healthy democracy requires an educated citizenry. Disagreement over the extent to which charter schools serve that public purpose is perhaps the central reason they are controversial, and it merits serious discussion. Horace Mann and other founders of the American public education system assumed that “common schools” would prepare students for effective citizenship because they were operated by democratically elected officials and educated students in common. But whether the common-school model is necessary, sufficient, or ideal for educating citizens is an empirical question. Is a KIPP charter school undermining the social contract as it produces large improvements in achievement for the black and brown students it serves? Effective citizenship presumably requires the kinds of literacy and math skills that KIPP schools and many other urban charters are demonstrably producing.

Indeed, some charter schools have made preparation for citizenship their explicit purpose, with impressive results. Democracy Prep, a charter-school network based in New York City that serves largely black and Latinx students, proclaims that its mission is “to educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship.” We conducted a rigorous randomized controlled trial of the impact of Democracy Prep on its students’ civic participation in adulthood, examining their registration and voting records after they were old enough to vote.

We found that Democracy Prep dramatically increases civic participation, raising voter registration rates by 16 percentage points and raising voting rates by 12 percentage points. Democracy Prep is not typical of all charter schools, of course, but it nonetheless provides an existence proof that charter schools are capable of fulfilling the social contract and successfully serving the original public purpose of public education. In an increasingly rancorous and divided political environment, greater attention to that public purpose is more than welcome.

I continue to believe that California will at some point fulfill that contract. I believe this most consciously when I go back to Westchester and reflect on my formative two years in school there. In the good life there is such a thing as a good fight, and it is not over.

School Choice is the Enemy of Justice, by Erin Aubry Kaplan, appeared in the August 14, 2018 issue of the New York Times.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.